The First Lesson You Learn
Ariel, London, UK
Everyone else who is associated with this story is either too rich or too wrapped up in the details of their lives to remember it. It has been 16 years and somehow I don't think anyone who was part of the experience really spoke about it as if it were real, placing it at the back of their minds, to be dredged up as a Halloween anecdote or a story to scare students and patients. God knows I don't.
Some 16 years ago, the first lesson we learned in Anatomy class was one of respect. I was one of 120 new medical students in a Medical school just outside Manila. Since then the part of Dasmarinas which housed the campus had grown into a developed town housing medical staff and the thousands or so students of the University..but during our time it was just one inconsequential jeepney stop on the way to Tagaytay, a small town with small jeepneys and suspicious close knit rural folk regarding the city- dwellers with caution.
Our school was in the midst of endless fields of cogon grass, the local landlord's house on top of a small rise, a small river and when night time came, it came swift and final. As such, this area around the school was a favourite dumping ground of criminals who have run afoul of the law for the last time, murder victims and suicides who have to remain anonymous. It was a hard time for our country, and death was all around us. It was superstition but, we always assumed that some of the bodies on our dissecting tables came from these violent endings. Some even had their wounds, their tattoos marred by knife wounds, gunshots , all turned a sour, pickled leather consistency from the embalming. So our first lesson was to treat the bodies with respect, never prod or poke with disdain (even though we were already seeing the most secret inner working of them), and never ever take anything from them. Not earrings, not gold teeth, especially not wedding rings. All these were to be buried with the dead after term time.
We named our cadaver Mang John (an honorific) and he was of medium heavy build, slightly flabby and had exactly seven tattoos, the most elaborate being a Sacred Heart design over the upper right hand side of his abdomen. The face of the Christ was rendered with such detail that the look of infinite concern and love was obvious even without color. We made sure not to go over this tattoo, making a lopsided midline incision, because it was just so beautiful. The rest were prison tattoos, whose meaning only Mang John knew. We all knew that he had a hard life, even without looking at his face and at some of his scars. He however, died with his wedding ring on, which made him human in my book, not the utterly evil criminal who met his deserved end. Someone loved him, so he wasn't all bad. I had just bid him goodbye not two days before, thanking him for the knowledge he gave me.
The Anatomy Hall was a big free standing warehouse-like structure on the East side of the campus, adjoined into the lecture halls by a passage going down and northwards, sealed by a small wrought iron gate. Following this gate the other way led outside to the parade grounds, where we would play American football and hang underwear on top of the flagpole. The back of the Anatomy Hall was a small space surrounded by a 10 foot high chicken wire fence anchored on poles arising from a thigh high concrete wall that swept down at a severe angle towards a small creek snaking from south to north, following the lay of the land. On the other side of that creek, a distance of about 15 feet was the back end of the Student Homes. From this side, some of the students were treated to the ghoulish spectacle of Mang Al (the caretaker) propping cadavers up on this chicken wire fence for the effluvium to drain. I think the effluvium drained into the creek, but I am not too sure.
It so happened that one March night, the students there gathered for a drinking session celebrating absolutely nothing at all. One of my friends, Joseph..was one of those whose rooms were facing this chicken wire fence. He was an ex-seminarian, of a pragmatic and utterly sensually addicted disposition, totally unsuited for a life of self- sacrifice..but he learned of the truth of souls while inside the embrace of the church. And because of this, he almost never opened his windows on that side of his room.
Those who have never been to a Filipino drinking session will notice a pattern?.initially there will be a hushed but appreciative silence where the beer would flow and the jokes would be passed between seatmates?followed by someone cracking a joke that starts the laughter and the ribbing. If you had the right person, this was also the time where the guitarista would lay on with the tunes. A Horse with No Name segueing into Your Smiling Face and then dirty songs and drinking songs until one by one, the drinkers will fall away comatose or slink away looking for a place to quietly and honorably upchuck the results of the past few hours.
It was around this time that one of the drinkers from the opposite side of the table was mentioning something about the mass burial. That no one would mind if he took souvenirs, least of all the dead. There was nervous laughter all around the table. Joseph stood up to go and left me the key to his own. He slipped away quietly nad I thought nothing of it until I felt my own urge to unload. I entered his room and then went immediately to the sink on the other side, careful to unleash my several hours worth of alcohol without spills, and after a few wracking retches I had to have air. I opened the window and gulped hungrily. At first I wasn't too sure about what it was I was seeing. There were people there standing on their heads, lopsided, askew on their feet and it gave me a start. My head cleared enough for me to remember that these must be the cadavers for the new batch?until I noticed that in the shadows beyond them there was someone pacing the floor. It was 3 am, and the anatomy hall was supposed to have closed at 6 pm. There was no way any student was going to break into that place in the dead of night and risk expulsion or worse. I was a natural coward but also being incredibly drunk, I opened the window wider and watched the figure come in and out of the moonlight that illuminated only the lower half of his body. I recognized him and my knees went weak and more of the sick jettisoned from my mouth. I saw the beautiful tattoo we preserved so diligently. only there was no scar, not suture marks. This was Mang John's soul?..his restless shade. He was there, pacing to and fro and fingering his right ring finger. There was no ring.
He suddenly started walking towards the wire and for the life of me I swear, though it seemed impossible?he started beating on it and the wire fence started swaying! I was slapped through my drunkenness, because I could hear the sound of it, because the sounds of the drinkers paused for a while, and all around the vicinity. dogs started to howl. I could imagine my fellow students shutting their windows and their doors, like I did when I heard the howls. Something bad was on the air and you had to get inside. There was a knock on the door?.and an urgent whisper?
" Pare, close the windows and come with me??quick!" . I came out of the door stuttering, not being able to speak. Joseph pulled me from the waist, harshly, wanting me away from the room as quick as possible. We ran quietly through the hallways finally entering his girlfriend's room on the opposite side of the complex. she was in the corner, praying to a crucifix.
" Lie down and sleep here. You can't go out there?not right now. Mang John knows you."
"His ring was missing! I bet it was one of those idiots from the inhuman (drinking party) ..How did you know it was him? Did you see him too?" I said.
It turns out he had been sleeping here for the past three nights, ever since he saw the dead man through his window pacing in exactly the same way. For a few days now, Joseph says, he could not get close to the cadaver? the negative energy was way too much for him and as the mass burial drew near, the negativity increased. As he talked he was lighting candles near the door and placing rosaries and scapulars over the windows. In the bathroom we closed the windows and turned on the exhaust. Outside the dogs were howling and the drinkers were all of a sudden, very quiet.
Eventually I got to sleep to the drone of the Rosary and endless entreaties for the Lord to protect us. I was still drunk after all and even though I was afraid, the hours between 3 and 5 am are death to me. Even when I was on duty in the medical wards later on, they were still my danger hours?.I made sure that I was not doing anything complicated or required too much thinking. The night passed without incident, I woke up once and hazily saw Joseph peeking near the window and mumbling something. I couldn't make it last and slumbered again after that.
I woke up the next day thinking that the night may have been to some extent, a drunken hallucination of mine. I still remembered the walking dead man but aside from Joseph. I could not raise the courage to talk about anyone about it. I couldn't confirm it, but I'm sure everyone felt and heard the strangeness of the night before. It wasn't long after that that people started dropping out of school. Some being bundled off in cars by their parents...some just disappearing and not coming back. Rumors started about how one student quite literally lost it and became mentally ill....and while the official story was that he was overcome by the pressures of studying? whispers had it that he was in the drinking session and that he had gone out to pee an then he just never turned up.
I remembered that some of them actually threatened to desecrate (or have already desecrated) the dead. Draw your own conclusions. I don't exactly know how it turned out after I saw Mang John's ghost, whether did he got his ring back or not. And while I was to have many other paranormal experiences as I went into my medical career, I would like to think that I learned the lesson of respect. The days went by in a blur and Joseph, Rain and I forgot all about it We each went on with our careers, got married, divorced, got married again and went to distant lands to come to terms with bad choices. But once in a while it's good to remember. It's been 16 years Joseph. Drop me a line buddy if you read this.
Thanks for reading everyone..