Raymond Dominguez was reading about the colonel who made little golden fish after the war when he happened across a note written in the margins of his book. Just about every book he read in the last decade had some dirty opinion or spiritual outburst etched against the edges of the page, but this one was different. The elegant curve of the S lead up to the K with such flourish, the word “casket” never looked so lovely.
In prison, where men made letters with fists gripped around bits of lead, Dominguez thought this precious script worth admiring. He was working his fingers through his beard, when some commotion on the floor above disturbed the quietude of his cell. Either it was another riot, or else a raid, but his ceiling did not quake with bodies thrown to the concrete. No alarms, no orders wailed over the intercom. No batons on bars. No gunshots. And yet it was noise enough for Dominguez to mark his place in the book and set it aside.
If he didn’t know better, he would have said they were dancing up there in gen pop. Singing and dancing. But in all his time at New Bilibid, he had never heard cause for such celebration.
Dominguez never held much respect for the maggot-mouthed minion who whispered through his door, “That is all I know, sir.” It was a lie no worm would dare fabricate, but a man like Raymond Dominguez made his name on seeing for himself.
The solitary silence was punctured by the sigh of rusted hinges forced into work. Much to the chagrin of the messenger who had staked his life upon that lock holding, the Black Sawa swung the door to his cell right open. Clean-shaven and dressed in a suit, now loose in the shoulders, he ordered the man to take his seat.
His snakeskin shoes pressed through the corridor and the fiesta fell silent, as if every cock in the brood were marked for the stew. Dominguez stopped twice on his way through to touch the shoulders of his second cousin and his second in command, who needed no words to understand orders.
With a new expansion every few years, the government was constantly improving the compound’s walls. Every installment was better funded, taller and thicker than the last, iced in barbed-wire, and secured with the latest locking mechanisms. But all of the guards having mysteriously disappeared, doors opened easily for Dominguez and he simply walked out. When he reached the gate at the outer most wall, a private car was already waiting.
• • •
On the way in, Dominguez had rolled down all of the windows to savor the sweet air of his country. Now the windows were a weak barrier against smog that settled around standstill traffic. Where there used to be one road to and from the small town where the prison guards lived, there was now a dozen different routes, each an artery prone for heart failure.
Traffic being what it was Dominguez arrived late into the final evening of the rosary. Men were playing cards with fingers soaked in Matador Light and the old ladies recounted entire family lineages while rolling strips of old magazines into beads. At that hour, there was no one left to swat flies away from the banquet table. Anyone who stirred the soup or reached for the last piece of lumpia would have raised the swarm from its brood.
Along the roof of the pavilion hung spear guns and buoys, strings of shells, and finely meshed netting—-whether it was one long net or several woven through the ceiling beams like bunting, only those who hauled in the fish knew. Fishermen in these parts used to trap fish by baiting a shallow cove and waiting for low tide to seal them in.
“My father was a fisherman,” the Green Lady had told him. “When he couldn’t catch anything else, he sometimes squeezed the innards of a sea cucumber into the water. It paralyzed the fish, and he snatched them one by one. But that was considered dirty, it was considered desperate. You only used poison if your family was on the brink of hunger and you couldn’t get a boat.”
“They thought it cowardly?”
“In a way.”
“But it is effective, no denying that.”
When her garden was in full bloom, the Green Lady could have sedated half the country. Legend had made her as beautiful as she was deadly, but it is hard to say whether or not this was true when she grew older every year, and only those marked for death saw her face longer than fifteen minutes.
The ground turned black beneath her feet. The Green Lady raised her plants in soil so rich it could be boiled into cocoa and served to guests. The secret, if it was a secret, was that the worms were fed only the freshest meat, for decay makes a bed soft and ripe for new life. Dry, thorny bushes that drank from this place burst with roses dark at the edges, and beating as if blood were dripping from their veins.
Dominguez kissed her hand and drank her tea, but he couldn’t be sure whether he was hiring her, or whether the Green Lady was already on the job. When she insisted on taking him through the garden, he realized that if he failed to kill her with his own hands, she would come after him one way or another. So he followed her to the bricks that walled in her beloved plants, and slithered as close as a krait snake could get.
“What did they think, the fishermen, when the Blue Dream Fish was discovered right beneath their boats?”
“They weren’t surprised.”
“They haven’t lost sight of the belief that there are still things more dangerous to be found. That is what keeps them careful. When he calls upon Maguayan for help, a fisherman knows it’s a gamble. Sometimes it is she who has chosen to take his life, and there is no defeating the sea.”
“Perhaps not, but there is usually a way to escape.”
“Not for long.”
Before he could strike, the Green Lady held up her palm as if to blow him a kiss and filled his eyes with pollen. Blinded by saffron, the Black Sawa would have been easy prey if he weren’t able to see just as well with his tongue. Teetering on the spot, he followed the spicy taste of her skin. Deafened by the pounding of his own hot blood, he drew his blade and lunged. The Green Lady danced back, but the Black Sawa snagged her by the wrist. He twisted her under his arm into a chokehold. With the tip of his blade, gently in a way, he traced the curve of her slender throat. After all, his reputation for precision came from taking his time.
As her blood washed over his blade, the Green Lady dropped her weight to her knees, pulling the Black Sawa down, and rolled him over her shoulder. The Green Lady jumped on his back. She wrapped a spiny vine around his airway and pulled it tight.
Blind, pinned, and short of breath, the Black Sawa’s mouth filled with rich, soft soil. Heaving for oxygen, his neck only narrowed. But the tears filling his eyes began to wash away the jaundice fog. It was then he realized why the ground felt like a bed beneath his knees—-he was lying in dirt freshly dug for a grave. No better than a hooked fish desperate to stay in the sea, he thrashed. He thrashed and the loose ground gave way. He had room enough to slide forward and throw off his assailant. The Black Sawa rose over the Green Lady, gulping to fill his thirsty lungs.
Black earth stuck to every inch of her arms and shoulders. Dirt caked over the gash in her neck and fell from her hair when she breathed. Trembling below his scaly boot, the Green Lady looked like a creature burning in hell. He made her crawl back, until she was pinned against the wall of her own garden. He would leave her body there—-close enough to smell her salves, but too far to touch them.
He swore the garden was surrounded by solid brick but then, with her back up against the wall, she vanished. He looked around and around and finally found the hole. At first the crack seemed barely wide enough to fit the Green Lady, but then he saw he could fit too. Her path was even marked by twigs and leaves torn in the haste of escape.
He often put his book down in New Bilibid, thinking he could have ended it once and for all that day had he followed her into the garden. But the path between the rose bushes grew quite narrow. The bushes, they swayed in the wind, hungry and wild, ready to devour him.
The gangster’s throat tightened as he walked through an archway made of young trees and shiny ivy. At the end of the dark tunnel, a brightly lit cove housed the casket, filled with long yellow foxgloves and orange angels’ trumpets, stars of jimsonweed and little bells of nightshade. When the Black Sawa leaned over the jade sarcophagus, he found her, the Green Lady, nestled into her deathbed like a bulb planted for spring.
Just to be sure, Dominguez lifted her soft hand into his. He removed the flower from his lapel, and half expecting her to cry out, stabbed the bare flesh over and over with the pin. The hand fell back into place, a hand no more, but a bundle of bone and embalming fluid.
Only then did Dominguez allow himself to take in a full breath and look over the body before him. The Green Lady’s family had dressed her in rose silk and pearls. Her long hair coiled around her shoulder, over her neck, and down her breast. Laid out like this, she looked younger than he remembered, like someone who could be reasoned with, and maybe even loved. Gently, Dominguez pulled the braid from the woman’s throat and his eyes grew hot. Through vision clouded by tears, the Black Sawa saw only smooth, creamy skin where there should have been a scar.
As he doubled over on top of the cold body, Raymond Dominguez recalled a message he had read in the margins of a book. Written in the most ornate script—a script much too pretty to belong to a prisoner—the message said: “It is not the role of the pallbearer to question the weight of the casket.”