Qwertyman for Monday, December 5, 2022
PRISONER Q felt his shovel bite into the soil with what sounded like a sigh of satisfaction. It had rained, and the earth was dark and soft and yielded without complaint. Beside him, his fellow inmates attacked the job with gusto, happy to be outside under an overcast sky instead of stewing in their cells and taking turns napping, because of the limited space. The mayores or cell block leaders could, of course, sleep anytime; they even had bunks to stretch out on while everyone else languished on the floor or stood up against the railings.
As an agurang or elder, Prisoner Q enjoyed a few privileges—he got into the front of the line at mealtimes, although he ate the same sweaty rice and slurped the same dishwater soup, and now and then he got a pack of cigarettes from his mayor or (he was told) even the warden himself because he could write in English and could draft special requests or letters of appeal, but otherwise, especially to the outside world, he was just one of them, another mouth to feed at the state’s expense.
So everyone was surprised when Prisoner Q volunteered to join the excavation detail that the warden ordered to be put together for a special project in a vacant lot toward the back of the prison. It wasn’t his body they questioned—he had stayed fit over the 14 years he had been in prison, and was in better shape than when he came in—but his mind. These labor details were usually assigned to newcomers who needed to be broken in, who needed to be jerked out of the utak-laya mindset they clung to with their fingernails. It was backbreaking work, and more than one inmate had collapsed from exhaustion or sunstroke. Many assumed that Prisoner Q merely wanted a change of scenery, a change of pace to ward off buryong, the prison blues that led to slashed wrists and, worse, running amok and causing mass mayhem.
They also wondered what all the digging was for, and why the warden didn’t just bring in a backhoe to do the job. At first it had seemed like all they were digging was a ditch, but it grew bigger and deeper by the day and by the week, until it was the size and depth of a swimming pool. And still they dug on for up to ten hours a day, their meals brought down to them, with a makeshift latrine in a corner for their immediate needs. The dig turned up old beer and soft-drink bottles, ceramic shards, a scorched wristwatch, and Army-issue spoons and forks, but nothing of extraordinary value, except for a silver ring that had lost its stone. Whatever they found was laid out on the surface on a white cotton bedsheet, and now and then the warden came by to inspect and to collect the more interesting pieces, tossing the rest back into the maw of the excavation. Sometimes the warden consulted a map that he had on his phone, which no one else could see, and measured distances. Rumors began to spread that the warden was after treasure, that he had gotten hold of a wartime Japanese map that indicated the presence of at least part of Yamashita’s marvelous loot in this particular quadrant of the prison.
One day Prisoner Q dug up the head of a bisque doll, half of its face badly burnt. Its one good eye stared at him, and he threw it away. And then from a few inches deeper emerged the skeletons, a whole tangled mass of them, as if they had chosen to die together in some conflagration. A scrap of cloth bore a flowered print; the heel was peeling off a man’s shoe. The news of the bones’ discovery hardly caused a stir in the penitentiary, where corpses of even more recent vintage turned up all over. The warden picked through the bones like they were cattle, and pulled a thin gold ring from a finger. He ordered Prisoner Q’s gang to put the bones in the trash and to resume digging. Prisoner Q cradled the three skulls in his arms and set them down carefully on the wheelbarrow; one of them had a gaping hole on the right; another had lost its jaw. He wondered what kind of violence could have led to such a catastrophic end. He had seen terrible things done to people and to bodies in prison, and he had almost forgotten what violence meant. He felt impervious to injury.
That night, lying on his back, Prisoner Q’s thoughts drifted off to what it was like to sleep again on a soft bed with freshly ironed sheets and with a woman breathing evenly beside him, and much as he wanted to quench the thought, it grew, seemingly on its own, in his imagination. This was the utak-laya he had successfully suppressed within his first three years, making him forget the family he had forbidden from visiting him in prison; his share from the last robbery would take care of their needs for life, and last he heard they had a farm in Casiguran, facing another ocean.
The woman lying next to him soon had a son of about six, who rode a red bicycle and was crazy about cars. When Prisoner Q offered him a car he had crafted out of a sardine can and bottlecaps, the boy turned away. Prisoner Q followed the boy to his room and saw how it overflowed with toys of all kinds—robots, guns, planes, and of course cars—and he jumped in surprise when a blue sportscar zipped between his feet and ran away, and the boy holding the remote control laughed gleefully. Then the woman came in and said, “It’s time for merienda. I made some biko and hot chocolate.” Biko, he tried to think, biko? The sticky rice clung to his palate and he could smell and taste the coconut milk in it, and he was smiling when he was shaken awake by a foot in his ribs, nudging him to get up. The dream exploded in his brain, and he tried to hold on to parts of it—that whiff of coconut, the boy’s taunts—but they came away in shreds. He wanted to lash out at the man who had woken him up, but it was just his friend Teroy, claiming his space on the floor.
That morning they dug some more, and then they ran out of earth, and hit solid adobe on which their spades were useless. No treasure could have been buried deeper than this virgin rock. The warden cursed at his misfortune and called the digging off. Prisoner Q’s grief was even greater; he was still scraping away at a hole that had opened up inside of him, and he could not stop.