| September 17, 2015


That’s Benilda for you, the little time-bomb, people said when news broke out that she had been dead many days inside her dorm room. When the dormitory caretaker found her, she lay on her bed on her side, the mass of her decomposed flesh sunk into her old mattress. Her eyes were shut lightly, the way they do when people slip into sleep. One arm was tucked underneath the side of her face and the other draped loosely over her waist. Her flower-printed blanket had slipped down in the course of her final evening until it settled just above her ankles, covering the purplish nails on her dainty rigid feet. Even when one plump white worm eased its way out of one eye socket, Benilda’s face maintained its usual calm, and the caretaker almost felt expectant that Benilda would waken, open into a self-conscious smile, and brush off the strands of hair that had strayed on her face.
When the smell of decaying flesh first seeped into the nearby rooms, the dormers complained of a dead rat. The tenant next door, Lyn, had been studying late at night, she said, when she first noticed it. It was a wet smell, she said, a rotten, dead smell that she could associate only with dead rats. Bothered by the stench, she snapped her books close and sprayed her room thick with perfume. She opened her window, which gave a view of the street, and pushed button 3 on her electric fan, causing its motor to rotate faster but noisily. The air became heavy with the vanilla scent of her perfume and for a brief moment the smell of dead rats was gone. But when she plopped back onto her bed and books, the smell of decay seeped into the slits and holes in the wooden walls of her room and made its way back into her nostrils. Unable to stand it, she swung her door open and sniffed hard to locate the source of the smell. It did not take long for her nose to lead her to Benilda’s room, by which an offensive stench hit her so strongly that she had to fight the urge to vomit her dinner. That night she gathered her study things and some clothes and left the dorm to sleep over at a classmate’s apartment.
The following day she went back to the dormitory after lunch to find people gathered around its big front doors and a Green Pastures Memorial Home van parked nearby. She pushed her way inside, muttering excuse-me’s to stubborn onlookers, and on her way up to her floor met two men carrying a stretcher on which an elongated bulk was covered from prying eyes with white linen. The cloth was not long enough and on one end Lyn could see round, bloated toes, the nails on which were nearly black and very small. She pushed her back to the wall as the men passed by her and carefully made their way down the staircase. A flight of stairs above, the caretaker, Manang Nora, was standing weak-kneed by the opening of Benilda’s room and crossing herself over and over when she was not covering her nose. By then it was not only the fifth floor that smelled; the whole dormitory was swallowed up by an overpowering smell of putrefaction.
The moment the men were out of the building with Benilda’s corpse, Manang Nora, from impulse, began to pick up her cleaning materials and proceeded inside the room where the young girl died. She would have begun pulling the mattress with its beddings off the bed if not for a uniformed officer who held her by the wrist and told her she was not to touch anything in the room.
What would you have me do with the smell? Manang Nora snapped at the officer.
Examinations are in order, ma’am, the officer answered.
The owner does not pay me to sit around! Manang Nora exclaimed. She went inside, enduring the putrid death smell of Room 5D with as much dignity as anyone’s at a time like this. She rolled the mattress into a bundle and put it inside a big black garbage bag that was too small to fit the mattress in. The officer was joined by another one who reprimanded his colleague for allowing the caretaker to tamper with the place of death. After a brief and carefully phrased argument the former threw up his hands and left the floor, muttering, I never do anything right for anybody, under his breath, and the second officer stood there out of place, looking at Manang Nora pushing the bed towards the door, surprised at the old woman’s energy. In the end he disregarded orders from above to conduct an examination of the room and scribbled on his log book: Door locked from inside. Caretaker forced door open with a hammer. Two weeks since tenant was last seen alive. Suicide. And then he too left the building. By this time it was already mid-afternoon, and the crowd of gossips had thinned and the tenants who were all students had decided they still had to attend their classes.
Manang Nora finished cleaning the room before dusk. She cleared it of Benilda’s belongings, which she stored in boxes recycled from the dormitory stock room. There were piles of books on Benilda’s table, which Manang Nora fit in three medium boxes that looked unable to hold. The wooden bedside table bare, Benilda’s vandalism of it became more obvious and sometimes looked slightly bigger than it actually was when Manang Nora glanced at it.
In black permanent ink, the table read, No easy life.
While Manang Nora scrubbed the walls, her back to the bedside table, she felt as if someone sat by the table tracing the sentence’s words. Several times she looked back, expecting to see a young woman, her face bereft of emotion yet altogether looking forlorn, her finger almost touching the table’s surface. But each time she saw no one. Her imagination raised the hairs on her nape, but she scrubbed on anyway, thinking to finish her job as soon as possible.
In the months that Benilda lived in the dormitory she hardly spoke a word. But she smiled always; sometimes she gave a small nod. On the last day Manang Nora saw her alive, she was on her way out the dorm, hurrying and glancing at the wall clock above the door, as if she was late for an appointment. She always went out at this time, and Manang Nora assumed she went to school. She didn’t see her again during the days that followed. But it didn’t alarm her. Had Benilda not died she would not have given her a moment’s thought. There are people like that, those who seem to exist without the world knowing.
When Manang Nora heard her running heavily down the stairs that day, she looked up and saw her hair had not yet been combed and was dripping from a shower. Benilda saw her varnishing the rattan chairs and fingered her hair clumsily, at the same time smiling apologetically, as if she had sinned by looking like an unfinished business. Manang Nora smiled back. Before she heard the door close she was already at her task again.
Manang Nora left Benilda’s room empty and smelling of disinfectant and locked it. She put a palm to the door and said, Bye, Nilda.
The morning after, she sat on the rattan chair by the dorm’s front door and waited for Benilda to go down at a few minutes past 8.


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