I THOUGHT I knew sleepy towns until I reached Calapan City in Mindoro Oriental.
Usually there’s not much to separate “sleepy” from “sleeping” as the degree of inactivity is hardly discernible.
After leaving the Batangas Port, our group docked at Calapan City. At dusk, the lights of a sprawling mall twinkled in the rearview mirror of the vehicle as we left the city behind in a bid to catch a 9 p.m. roll on-roll off (roro) crossing from the port of Roxas to Panay Island.
Though I assume life would be settling down with evening fall, I didn’t expect the passing towns to be in thrall of the dark like the fairytale kingdom that lies under a sleeping spell.
At some point, I noticed in the nearly deserted town centers we passed that only two types of establishments had their lights blazing on: police stations and funeral parlors.
The latter riveted my attention as, aside from the business name, this information was also displayed: the name of the licensed embalmer and the fact that the establishment operated on a 24-hour basis.
Death, of course, calls at a time that’s only convenient to itself, never to the visited.
But in a town of a couple of hundreds of families, what were the chances that there was a showdown of embalmers; hence, necessitating the advertisement of so-and-so?
And this emphasis on “licensed” embalmers: did it mean that there were unlicensed ones? Why would one bring the dead to an artisan operating without a license and, one presumes, the expertise to preserve a vessel of corruption into a simulacrum of incorruptibility?
Such thoughts made rather morbid companions for a journey that was initially uneventful. The highway was wide and almost deserted at just past 7 p.m. Even when the road turned all twisty like chicken entrails, luminous arrows and signs cautioning about “accident-prone areas” guided our negotiations around the hairpin curves.
And then from out of the dark loomed the first motorist, driving without lights. The husband let out a mouthful after swerving just in time. A few hundred meters later, another averted tragedy, a couple and a child motoring complacently in absolute darkness.
In the end, the inscrutable dark became like a gleeful foe, throwing in our path motorists and bicyclists with this aversion to lights and baffling apathy to personal safety.
Suddenly the pre-eminence of the embalming profession made sense. Even the shuttered roadside houses were witnesses in denial: no, we did not see what happened.
We arrived at the port of Roxas without accident. At midnight, a three-motorbike smash-up was reported, word-by-mouth.
One dead. And plenty of embalmers to choose from in a place deserted by common sense.
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* First published in SunStar Cebu’s February 18, 2018 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, “Matamata”