By Lily C. Fen
When Peping arrived in Manila, everything came at him like a deluge of new. First, there was the rush of cars, even at four o'clock in the morning when his bus slid into its berth at Laoag Transit. Dust danced around him, transforming into tiny sandstorms of soot everywhere he looked.
Beyond the railings of the Metro Rail Transit, men and women hauled out produce from rickety trucks. Jeepneys chortled past. Shouts from the market chased after Peping as vendors prepared their wares before dawn broke.
"It's the fruit and flower market," one young man his age said, noticing Peping's mouth agape. Peping shook himself out of his sleepiness and adjusted the straps of his woven bag. It was a step up from the bayong he carried around in Batanes — this one had a zipper at the top and was thrice the size of his former carry-on.
"Enough for you to bring all your belongings with you, should a year pass before you can visit home, hijo," Mamá had said. She had included a love letter for him to read. "Read it on the way to Manila," she had said, pressing him tightly to her that he almost couldn't breathe. He thought he saw tears forming at the corners of her eyes as he had bid her farewell.
"So you're Peping," the woman who had come to pick him up said. Her hair looked like the curly black puff of an Aeta's, only hers was streaked with silver. She towered over him as she held out her hand. "You may call me Elma. I'm the mayordoma of the Trinidad household," she said. Peping looked at her hand. Handshakes were usually reserved in Batanes for school ceremonies. But this was Manila. Land of the advanced and civilised. He took her hand and shook it.
"Ahm, yes, ma'am Elma, I'm Peping po," he squeaked.
She motioned for a browned man her age, also with peppery hair, to come and join them. The older man gave up trying to light his cigarette, placing the stick behind one ear as he put his lighter back in his pocket.
Elma called to him, "Mang Eddie, will you see to Peping's things?"
Mang Eddie took Peping's bag and placed it in the trunk of a glossy black sedan. It was so clean that he could see himself reflected in it. "You may get in the back, Peping," Elma said as he scrambled to follow her.
The leather seats smelled brand-new. He felt like he was stepping into a world of unknown luxury, different from the sea spray of quiet Batanes.
The car sped off, as silent as it was shiny, and Peping gazed outside as they slid past the main thoroughfare under the cover of a grey dawn.
The city flashed before Peping as the car sped on. Soon, they glided into the gated community of Despedida Village. A forbidding gate stood before them as the security guard saluted them. He was uniformed in a polyester shirt and dark trousers. The sun had arrived, drenching them in a shower of light. Beads of sweat dotted the security guard's neck as he glanced at the Despedida Village sticker on the car's windshield and waved them in.
After a few turns, a house larger than any he had ever seen loomed before them. Black iron bars pointed to the sky, its tips golden arrows, fencing off the mansion. The Trinidad household was a light yellow, as perfect as the first light of morning.
A small white dog with brown specks barked at them as they got out of the car, its tail wagging.
"Hijo, you will be doing a lot of these tasks after you settle in, things like getting the gate open or shut for when the governor or his wife wish to go out."
Peping trotted after Elma. Footpaths and a lawn of pristine green surrounded them.
Mang Eddie was filling a basin with water in the garage. "Mang Eddie, after you clean the car, will you see to Butterball's bath?" Elma asked.
As if on cue, Peping turned the corner to hear a "Yip! Yip! Yip!" coming from the fluffy dog with tears around its eyes. Its tail wagged with excitement. The creature looked like a walking pom-pom.
"He seems excited to meet someone new," Elma said as they approached the animal. "They call the breed Lhasa Apso, a toy dog that most of Despedida Village favour."
The well-manicured grass turned into a small patio as Elma guided Peping through the property. Three single roses that seemed to rise out of the air stood on a garden table, each covered by a delicate glass dome. The flowers glistened in the light, winking at Peping. The more he looked, the more it dawned on him. These were the very flowers they had been talking about on the news — roses frozen in time, forever alive.
Elma glanced back at Peping, as if she had anticipated his reaction. "Ever heard of the Forever Procedure?"
Peping nodded, mouth agape as he looked at Elma, and then again at the roses.
"What did that scientist say on TV again?" Elma paused, scratching her chin as she stared up at the sky. "Ah yes," she said, "'It all began with a frozen rose,' the scientist had said on the news. Said that the method did not involve any freezing but that they liked the term since they had 'frozen' life in time."
"Mang Eddie and I were dumbfounded because it sounded like the stuff of American movies—Filipino scientist synthesises the secret to eternal life, the headlines said on the news. When I was serving Ma'am Trinidad and the Governor that evening, the news came on again. Ma'am Trinidad let out an excited yelp and practically jumped into the Governor's lap.
"I had never seen Ma'am so excited.
"That's the real deal right there. The governor and his wife are friends with the doctors who patented the technology. I still can't believe it was invented in the Philippines, of all places, or that such a thing can be done.
"Worth a fortune, each one of them," she said, nodding to the three roses.
"Once plastified, they never decay. They are caught in the time between flourishing and falling away. Roses were the simplest things that the clinic could do.
"They're moving on to animals, rats and mice, that sort of thing," she said. "That's the reason why you are here—Butterball, our Lhasa Apso, is turning eight years old in a few months and the vet has suggested the Frozen Forever treatment for the dog.
"You're here to assist Ma'am Trinidad during the transition and be in charge of the dog, especially after the Forever Procedure has been done.
Butterball growled, as if he understood that he was the subject of discussion. Still his tail wagged.
"Poor fella," Elma said, glancing down at Butterball as they walked past him. "As far as I understand, you have to kill what remains alive inside it in order to freeze it forever in time.
"Imagine doing that to a living, breathing thing?"
Peping did not answer, and neither did she say more on the subject.
"Let me show you to your room," she said, and they left the garden with its forever roses.
"So you're Peping," the governor's wife said. She reminded him of the roses he had walked past. Her hair was like the sky on a moonless night, her skin unblemished. She sat on the chaise lounge, one hip up as if she were a young woman posing for a magazine cover. Her royal blue jumpsuit electrified the room. Butterball sat on the cushions next to her, perking up as Peping approached.
"I hear Elma's briefed you on life around the house and what's expected of you.
"You're to care for Butterball. Elma and Mang Eddie can teach you any details that haven't been covered yet."
The woman yawned and she dismissed him with a wave of her hand. As he turned to leave, the lady lifted a glass of iced water next to her. Ice cubes tinkled against glass, echoing through the room. A few clumps of sampaguita were in her water. In Peping's world, sampaguita was reserved for garlands meant as offerings to the Virgin Mary or the Santo Niño. He wondered what sampaguita water must taste like as he left the room.
When Butterball arrived from the Forever Procedure, his brown eyes glinted at Peping just as they had in life. Awestruck, Peping's jaw dropped. He collected himself and gulped. "Wow, this is something else."
Elma looked at Peping with a kind of understanding. "He looks life-like because his very eyeballs have been frozen in time, as the doctors say. That's how sophisticated the technology is," she said, scrutinising the dog. "Oh, here, I'd read about it in the pamphlet they gave at the clinic when we brought Butterball in," she said, picking up a glossy leaflet from a side table by the sofa.
She flipped it open, reading aloud, "The procedure we developed is based on plastination — we wanted to preserve the biological samples as they were, using silicon and drying technologies. This prevents decay from ravaging the specimen. We took the Gunther von Hagens technique and brought it into the future edge of science." She looked up as she folded the pamphlet away.
"Crazy, isn't it?" Elma straightened up. "This isn't just some animal stuffing. This is the real thing. A serum so advanced that even a dead animal's eyes can look so alive."
The Lhasa Apso stood at attention on all fours. Its nose looked wet, its fur as soft as the day Peping had arrived. Even the flesh underneath its coat felt tender under Peping's fingertips, though without any warmth.
Peping took a whiff of the dog and crinkled his nose. "What about the smell?" The dog reminded him of the Trinidad car—like leathers and chemicals. Elma turned back to him. "I don't know. The roses don't smell like that," she said.
"I will have to ask the lady of the house to see if there is anything we can do." She shrugged. "Anyway, the dog's the reason we hired you. You're to care for Butterball now that he has been Frozen Forever. Keep him well-groomed. Ma'am Trinidad wants him visible in the living room most days, particularly when they're entertaining, but also at the end of each day when the governor comes home, so that they have something marvellous to see."
The two of them did not say anything for a moment as they glanced at the Trinidad family portrait — one of the Governor, Ma'am Trinidad, and their fashionable twentysomething son and daughter, Berting and Bella.
Then it burst out of Peping. "Wh-why did they have to do Butterball in, anyway?" Peping said.
"Butterball had cancer, something that couldn't be cured in dogs. At least this way, he stays — erm — seems — alive," Elma stumbled on the words.
Peping stroked Forever Butterball with one hand, gently, as if he were afraid of breaking the plastified dog. Tears gathered at the corner of Peping's eye. Why was he weeping for this dog?
Peping settled into a routine with Butterball. It turned out to be the best job he ever had. He cooed and cawed at the dead animal, whose eyes remained open and bright, its coat as glossy as the days when it used to run around the house.
It didn't require much effort to keep Butterball groomed. All Peping had to do was brush the dog's coat and keep the canine at an angle that would catch the afternoon light in the living room. The house was so large, the marble floors cool, that the room temperature remained even most days, barely needing the sleek air-conditioning unit that was attached to one of the living room walls.
The day Berting and Bella arrived at the house, change entered the governor's household. The grown children of the governor and Ma'am Trinidad carried an air of sophistication about them — Berting in gelled up hair and a shirt that was unbuttoned partway down to his chest, Bella with a silk kerchief around her head and shades that covered half her cheeks. Mang Eddie trailed after her, tending to her suitcase.
"Just take it up to my room, Mang Eddie," Bella said without looking at their servant.
"Where's mum?" Bella's voice reached the heights of the vast room, echoing off the marble floors on which Peping was bent low, tending to Butterball. Elma peeked through the kitchen doorway at the sound of Bella's voice. Her face lit up, the first time Peping had ever seen a real smile on Elma.
"Bella!" Elma rushed into the room.
Bella ran to hug Elma. When they let go of each other, she looked down at Peping and the dog. "Oh my gosh. Is that — Butterball?!" Bella gasped as she bent down to inspect the dog. "So Mama really did it," Bella said, her voice in a place between wonder and fright.
She stood up abruptly. "Which is why Mama can't do this to herself. I mean, look at this goddamned dog!" She was shouting at Berting, who had remained silent and was gazing at their family photo.
"Berting, my darling! And Bella!"
Ma'am Trinidad had arrived at the foot of the stairs. No one had heard her — the steps were padded in a soft carpet that remained immaculate, thanks to Elma's efforts.
"I see you've met Peping, he's been a gem taking care of Forever Butterball! What would I do without him." Ma'am Trinidad wrapped her arms around Bella. She waved Berting over and he sighed, approaching his mother. She took him in her free arm and sniffed his head. "Mmm, my Berting and Bella. We're together at last."
She clapped her hands. "Your Papa is too often in Iloilo and we've barely been able to discuss it. But children, look at these horrid wrinkles of mine," Ma'am Trinidad said, taking a perfectly-manicured nail up to her crow's feet.
"You know the initial tests were with the roses and then Butterball. What a terrific job Dr Jimenez did on him, wouldn't you say?
"And after several months of observing Butterball — just look at how perfect he is — I've decided to do the Forever Procedure on myself.
Her words landed on silence.
And then Bella broke the stillness, exclaiming, "Mama, you can't!" Bella's glossy hair shone shone like a shampoo commercial as she flung off her silk kerchief. "Why would you do something like that? Are you crazy? Have they ever even done it on a human? Won't the procedure kill you?"
"Darling, it isn't called the Forever Treatment for nothing. Who wants to get old, anyway? We amass wealth to get us what money can buy — and in this case, I can buy everlasting youth. I'll be captured in beauty permanently, before it all disappears. It will make your Papa look at me again with some regard," she said, a tender smile on her lips for Bella.
"I need to do this. For your Papa. For me. I think it's much better an alternative than what my kumares are opting for. All of that Botox and collagen infusions and face lifts and what not — that fades away again, eventually.
"And — yes. You are right, my darling. When I go under the knife, or, erm, under the Forever Injection, there will be no reversing the effects.
"Which reminds me. It's good that Peping is here in the room." Ma'am Trinidad turned around to look at Peping, whom everyone else had ignored.
"Peping dear, I would like to assign you the task of taking care of me once I'm — once I'm forever beautiful," she said.
Peping didn't know what to say.
Despite Berting's and Bella's protests and the governor's arrival the next day, nothing could change Ma'am Trinidad's mind. The procedure date was set.
"Peping, you will have three months to prepare and get everything ready before Ma'am becomes a Forever Lady. She will be the first of her kind, a monument. She's putting the family on the map," Elma told Peping as she prepared that evening's dinner for the Trinidads. "Ma'am Trinidad has opted to give you a raise for the increase in your duties in the household, effective on the day Ma'am goes through the programme."
It was two weeks to the day of the Forever appointment when Ma'am Trinidad called Peping into the living room. The air-conditioning was on, the hum of it killing off the song of the cicadas that sang in the trees outside. She had all the lights on, including the two chandeliers that dripped from the ceiling. The black grand piano that was only used for parties glinted underneath the lights.
A programme was on the wide screen TV, a documentary about Egyptian mummies.
Ma'am Trinidad gestured to the TV show as Peping walked in. "Peping, did you know that the pharaohs of Egypt would take their slaves with them into the afterlife? I've been thinking about it, not just today, and I'd like something like that for me too.
"I'd like to pay for the procedure for you, too, to be my companion into foreverness.
"You won't be able to take on other work that way so I've elected to pay you a handsome lump sum at the onset, making sure that your family in Batanes are cared for.
"How does one hundred thousand pesos sound to you?"
A shiver of fear and revulsion rippled through Peping.
It was one thing to work in this eccentric and wealthy household and serve at swanky parties where the roses and Butterball the Forever Dog were celebrated as the cult status symbol that all the other wealthy socialites wanted and envied.
But to include him in the picture.
"Ah, ma'am?" was all that could come out of his mouth.
Peping was lying on a stiff slab, one a pretty nurse was wheeling into the operating room. As they entered, a cold blast of air washed over Peping's limbs. Dr Jimenez's voice loomed over him as he neared Ma'am Trinidad.
"Ma'am, it is time for you to relax. We will begin the procedure now," The doctor spoke over Ma'am Trinidad's operating bed, a thin contraption wrapped in crisp sheets. Spindly legs criss-crossed into an X beneath her. Blue-violet serum hung from a steel rod next to her shoulder, the iridescent liquid traveling down a thin tube attached to Ma'am Trinidad's arm.
"Ma'am, we are inserting the Forever liquid into your appendages now. It might sting a little." The liquid succumbed to gravity, drop by drop. The hum of the air-conditioning filled the room. Glass clinked against metal as the nurse adjusted other injections on a tray.
Ma'am Trinidad gasped. "Ahh, that hurts," she said.
"Your muscles are slowly dying, Ma'am, it is necessary for us to monitor it to make sure that your vitals allow for successful plastination. We want to preserve you as fresh as possible," the doctor reassured her.
"Feels like ice," she said, bracing her teeth.
"Guess that's why we like to refer to the procedure as a kind of freezing," the doctor quipped. Ma'am Trinidad and the doctor chuckled.
Peping lay in the corner of the sterile room, wondering what he had gotten himself into. He tried to move his muscles around. They responded with reluctance, as if fear had frozen him.
The doctor injected other vials into the intravenous drip hanging over Ma'am Trinidad. He spoke in hushed tones to Ma'am Trinidad as each injection went in. "First the right arm is affected, then soon, the left. The legs will follow suit," the doctor informed her.
A heart monitor that had been beeping steadily began to slow. Peping lifted his neck and looked around the room. On one wall was a large window. Elma and Mang Eddie were outside, observing the procedure. Their gazes were fixed on Ma'am Trinidad.
Neither Ma'am Trinidad's husband, the Governor, nor their two celebrity children were there for the proceedings.
"Harrumph, in her quest to be young forever, she's willing to do this," Peping had once heard the Governor grumble under his breath to Elma and Mang Eddie, on one occasion the politician had come home. But that same evening, he had escorted the Governor to the Manila Polo Club, where the politician had sat down in a posh but dimly lit table, a voluptuous young woman in a short skirt waiting for him with a bottle of wine.
The nurse approached him. "Welcome to Forever, Peping," she smiled at him. "We need your digestive tract empty, in order for the procedure to be flawless," she said. "Take this." She handed him a cup with a pill in it. "You'll be going to the toilet for a few hours, but it will also take Ma'am Trinidad the same amount of time to succumb to the effects of the procedure. Afterwards, it will be your turn," she said cheerily.
Peping gulped down the pill.
In a few minutes, he felt the first stirrings of the medicine.
After Peping had gone one several trips to the toilet, the doctor approached Ma'am Trinidad. She sounded serene.
"How are we doing, Ma'am?" he asked.
"I'm fine, though I can no longer feel my arms and legs," she slurred.
"We're going to inject the rest of the fluid into your spine, Ma'am. It will sting a little, but after that, it will be the last of the medication, and a wave of calm will fall and wash over you. You will be Forever Young, as you wanted to be," the doctor said, smiling down at Ma'am Trinidad.
She gave a faint nod. "Uh-huh," managed to escape her lips. "That is all I want," she said.
Time stretched, only the heart monitor pierced the hum of the air conditioners.
As Ma'am Trinidad's heart rate slowed, the doctor approached Peping. "It's your turn," he said. "First, just like you saw with Ma'am Trinidad, we inject the first vial of Forever intravenously."
He didn't want this. Didn't.
All he wanted to do was bolt and run. But Ma'am Trinidad. And the money. And the contract. And his family back home in Batanes who would benefit.
And what could he do anyway? What right did he have to say no? He was their servant.
Without asking or warning, Peping felt the sharp sting of the needle. He winced. "Oww," he said, looking away as the nurse worked on him. It was connected to a tube that led to a container of saline solution. Peping watched as she injected the blue serum into the packet above.
A terrible wave of cold jetted into his blood stream as the bright liquid gave in to gravity. That blue fluid going into his arm. He cringed again and bent away from his arm. They were killing him, one limb at a time, and he had willingly walked into this mess.
He sat up and staggered into a seated position on the thin bed. The nurse started as he pulled the needle out of the crook of his left arm. A spray of crimson flowed down his forearm, but he didn't care. He jumped off the operating bed, the frame rolling back at the force of his movement while the nurse could do nothing but take a few steps back. He grabbed another Forever Injection from the silver tray next to them. He held it like a knife at the nurse's neck as he grabbed her in a headlock.
She dropped the emptied syringe she had been holding and it clanged on the floor. His left hand lay dangling, useless, going numb at his side. In his desperation he held the injection with his right hand, while his arm was twisted in a tight loop around the nurse's neck. "Let me out," he said to the doctor as he scrambled about the room. More instruments and sterilised trays fell behind him, clattering in the antiseptic room.
Ma'am Trinidad's heart monitor had collapsed into an angry beep — she was no longer there. Or, in the words of the doctors and the clinic, she was Forever Young. They would move her soon, and assemble her limbs in a certain way — plastination allowed her body to be assembled into various positions. They would have her sitting in the living room, reading a book, or draped over the chaise lounge, like the day Peping had met her.
"Let me out!" he shouted, pushing the syringe ever so slightly into the nurse's neck. The nurse let out a small whimper and pressed the code of the automated doors. They swished open. Peping rushed out, still holding on to the nurse.
He and the nurse shuffled their way down an empty corridor. But where to? Which door led to his salvation? Any minute now and Mang Eddie would come racing down a corner. He gripped the pretty nurse tighter. "Which way?" he barked.
The nurse whimpered, but pointed a finger down the hallway.
He scrambled past the antiseptic walls, the nurse still in his grip. They turned a sharp corner, and already, he could hear Mang Eddie shouting after him.
Peping and the nurse got to a door with a silver latched marked in green. He rested his full weight on it. The heavy door began to open, grudgingly, as if it didn't want to let Peping go. He glanced back down the hallway. Mang Eddie had rounded the corner.
A giant shaft of light from outside doused Peping. He could feel the heat of the sun warming his arms. The door had given way.
Peping flung the nurse back into the hallway and he jumped out onto the street. He dropped the injection right where he stood.
The reassuring sounds of Metro Manila washed over him — the rattle of jeepneys and cars that rolled through debris-filled streets under a periwinkle sky. Dust that refused to settle around Makati City's bustling buildings swirled around him as he stepped onto concrete.
Peping lunged into the stream of pedestrians. Mang Eddie was going to get past that nurse and be out of that door in a matter of seconds. But Peping had the busy city to help cover his tracks. He needed to disappear. Somewhere, right away, where they wouldn't find him.
Peping breathed a sigh of relief. He had made it, somehow, from Makati, all the way up to the North Bus Terminal, then to a bus to Vigan. His body ached from the tight seat where two passengers had to squeeze in, though he did his best to find an angle that would be kinder by leaning by the window. The rush of buses rumbled through the open windows, pulling him from sleep during the hours-long ride.
Once in Vigan, he had hopped onto the bus to Laoag, and from there, to Pagudpud. Tourist liners weren't advertised from Pagudpud port to Ivatan, but he knew he could peddle his way into a ro-ro that would carry him through choppy waves larger than he to the northernmost islands of the Philippines. He was so close. It had taken nearly two days to get here, and he could finally smell the salt washing in from the sea.
Peping stood on the port under a sky that was a deep indigo. They were to sail into the twilight, together with the night fishing boats. He would arrive by dawn the next day, a life rescued. His left hand continued to lay limply by his side. True to the name, the Forever Serum had forever frozen his left limb. He was fortunate to have escaped at the last moment.
As he soaked in the sea and the deepening twilight, he heard a familiar voice that made gooseflesh out of his skin. The hairs on his right arm stood on end, a shock of fear that snaked up the nape of his neck. The sound of slippered feet in a careful gait followed.
"Peping," a woman's voice said. He turned around to see Elma towering over him, her brown skin and button nose, that cloud of black hair that looked somewhere between an Aeta's and an American afro like in a poster he had seen at Ma'am Trinidad's hair salon.
"We've been looking all over for you. We thought we would find you here — well, Mang Eddie did," she said, gesturing with an approving smile to the driver behind her. He had on a dark jacket and a black cap, as if he wanted to disappear into the shadows.
"I'm sorry it had to be this way," Elma said. Her hand shot up, quick as lightning, and he felt the tiny pin-prick of a needle. The ache of serum sank into his flesh, spreading through his neck and down his body. His knees buckled and it felt like there was cotton in his mouth. Everything around him began to blur, including Elma and Mang Eddie.
He felt as if he were sinking into the waves just beyond the port.
Mang Eddie caught him mid-fall, and Peping slumped into his captor.
He could vaguely make out what Elma was saying. "It's just anaesthesia to help you go quietly, Peping. It will make the Forever Serum feel less painful, so I've been told. Rest assured, I will do as promised and send the remaining balance to your family. They will be well cared for, thanks to your service."QLRS Vol. 19 No. 3 Jul 2020