Fresh Fruit for Rotting Corpses

Someone once asked me where I wanted to be doing when the end of the world came.

I said: I want to be cooking.

*****

It was easy to tell that she was fresh, her skin still supple, her lips not yet gray. She looked alive, the open wound in her neck with bits of meat and bone peeking out the only telltale sign she might be otherwise. She was rooting around–we assumed for food, those things always seem to do nothing but eat–in a trash heap when we found her. She was alone, a rare thing since the dead, for some reason, like to wander in packs. Like Erwin used to say, people are like sheep, doesn’t matter if they’re dead or alive.

Erwin subdued her, no problem. The dead may be strong, even if they’re by themselves, but Erwin was always bigger and stronger than the average guy, so it was no trouble to pin her down and hack her head off with his cleaver. I always admired Erwin’s prowess with the butcher’s knife. I’m no slouch at knife work but my skill comes from the training I got in culinary school. Erwin’s is pure talent, coupled with working in his mom’s wet market meat stall since he was 13. 

He held the dead girl head face down with his left hand, his body over hers, his knee pressed against her back, ignoring the slow, almost mechanical flail of her arms while I held her feet to keep her from kicking.

One hack and it was over, Erwin getting up, holding the head by long dark hair that shone smooth in the sun. You could tell that she used to take good care of herself. Clothes that fit right, hair that looked like it saw a lot of the inside of the salon. The kind of person that had enough dough to book a room at the Orchid Hotel, where I used to work before all this happened. Not that any of that mattered now. Her nice clothes were ruined. Her expensive shoes, scuffed. We didn’t even bother to take her jewelry. None of that had any use. Not for cash, not for barter, not even for ornamentation. When you have a herd of the dead coming after you, you don’t want to be wearing anything that can be pulled. I let go of the woman’s legs. Erwin gave me a look and I nodded. Together, we made our way back to the base. 

Our “base” is really Aling Lucing, a restaurant near the railroad tracks Erwin and I used to frequent up until last year, when all of this started. It’s an institution here in Angeles City, the pride of the province of Pampanga. On the outside, it looks–looked–the same as all the other restaurants along railroad row, all of them turo-turo, open-air, canteen-style eateries where customers picked the food that they wanted, paid, and waited for their meal to be brought to their table. Aling Lucing’s was named after the proprietor, a hero around these parts, the lady who put Angeles City on the Philippine foodie trail. 

Pampanga cuisine has always had the reputation of being one of the best in the country, but  it wasn’t until Aling Lucing came along that people really started to take notice. By some accounts, she wasn’t a phenomenal cook–just good enough to run a fairly successful restaurant–but she invented a dish that became a star in mainstream Filipino cuisine.

The train tracks weren’t far from where we found the woman, but it took some time getting back to Aling Lucing’s. You had to move slowly, had to always be on the lookout. The dead were smarter than they looked, and we weren’t sure of what they were capable of doing yet. All we knew was that they could sense movement, detect strong smells, hear loud noises. That was enough to make us cautious. After they appeared, when we lost our city, we learned to hide in the shadows, to walk without sound. We learned to take heed of the direction the wind was blowing and if we happened to be downwind, to find a buffer. This was easy, as the city was full of trash. The city has always been full of trash, a bane and an eyesore whose stench would later save lives by helping to mask the smell of the living from the dead. We became scavengers, a skill that only a few people had to learn because most Filipinos lived below the poverty line and were used to looking through the garbage for sustenance. We learned to become killers. But how can you kill something that is already dead?

It took us almost an hour to make a trip that would normally take ten minutes. The chairs we had piled against the back door (more to signal us if anyone had entered than to actually keep anyone out) were still there. We gently pulled them away, stacking them neatly before slipping inside.

Trying to stay alive in a world where the dead want to eat you is, like a friend who used to work at the local TV station used to say, a  production number. Like a television variety show, there are numerous things to constantly consider, the smallest nuances to watch out for, the most obscure clues to remember. Life is never easy of you’re prey. 

We closed the door, bolted it, secured it with a sturdy metal table. We’d outfitted the inside of the restaurant to the best of our specifications, clearing out space for sleeping and slowly bringing in scavenged items for use. Not that there was much to find. The looting was terrible when things started, people breaking windows, walking into stores and taking things, the employees either having run out long before or actually leading the way. 

Here’s the thing about the looting: when the end of the world finally arrived, when the news anchors warned that people should stock up on the necessities — canned goods, bullets– people didn’t. When panic-buying stopped and the looting started, the first items to go were the luxuries. Flat screen TVs, entertainment systems, designer shoes, bags. They say the Hermes store in Makati got cleaned out faster than the nearby restaurants. It took a while for reality to sink in, for people to realize that things weren’t going to go back to what they were; that the world had become a very, very dangerous place.

By that time, the grocery stores, the 7/11s and Mini Stops, the cafes, restaurants, hotel kitchens, even the neighborhood sari-sari stores that sold everyday sundries such as coffee and vinegar had been emptied out by smarter people, mostly folks who had lived with too little for too long, folks who knew the signs of oncoming famine, and knew that they had to be smart and ruthless to stay alive. Also by this time, the streets were thick with the walking dead, so that even just stepping outdoors was a threat to your life. People who locked themselves in high up in condominiums couldn’t open their windows for the stench of the dead clustered below.

Still, we were luckier than a lot of countries. Being third world meant that we were used to a certain level of discomfort, a lack of things wealthier countries might call necessities. Many of us, especially those from the lower classes, could live on less food, not get sick from drinking dirty water. So many of us survived. We learned to kill the already dead, reasoning to ourselves that they were no different from the pigs and cows and chickens we slaughtered in the wet markets, cut up on our chopping blocks. We closed our eyes as we battered, impaled, beheaded people we knew, saw everyday on the elevator, worked with in the office, shared a bed with every night. The stronger of us–some would say the more heartless–kept their eyes open as they delivered that final blow. There’s something in the eyes, they say, a final flicker of recognition, of humanity, just before they glazed over and the body dropped for the last time. It was, they say, the soul set free. That’s bull. The ramblings of lost souls trying to make sense of a lost cause. There is no soul in a dead body. You are dead because you were fatally wounded or had a disease or were bitten by a zombie. When you rise undead, it’s not because some demon has held your soul captive. You rise because a sickness commands you to. It is a scarred world indeed, where even the dead are sick.

That’s the world we have to live in now, Erwin and I. And we make do any way we can.

I checked and rechecked our fortifications while Erwin got to work with the head, carefully washing it with water that we had collected during the last rainfall. When I was sure that we were safe, I stood beside my friend to watch.

Erwin doesn’t say much these days. Time was we could talk nonstop for hours. He was always getting into trouble in school for opening his mouth. And it wasn’t just that his tales were fascinating. He drew you in too, made you spill your guts, made you feel important. Erwin, he could make a chatterbox out of the shyest wallflower. That was how he charmed Rosa, his wife. Sat beside her in grade three and talked her ear off, then leaned in to listen when she finally spoke, her voice soft, a natural whisper. He never told anyone, not even me, what she had said to him that one day, but they had been inseparable since. First as friends, then lovers, then man and wife. They stayed together even when Erwin had to quit school and help his mother with her meat stall in the market. They stayed together even when Rosa’s father threatened to disinherit her for dating a palengkero, a market vendor. That same father who was there when Maria Lourdes was born, but as a proud grandfather, shaking Erwin’s hand. No, Erwin doesn’t say anything these days, not after he had come home to find his wife dying, his daughter, who had caught a cold earlier that week, become one of the living dead, gnawing at her mother’s teat with a hunger so fierce she drew blood with her gums. This was just before radio went down, so everyone knew what was happening, knew what they had to do. Erwin used to be a religious man, but I think the day he had to look into his wife’s eyes as he brought the cleaver down on her neck was the day he lost all faith. I want to ask him what he saw in her eyes those last few seconds. If it was true what they said about the soul leaving. I don’t know how he took care of his daughter. Some things are so horrible, the best way to deal with them is to keep them to yourself.

After washing the head, he tilted it to the side, taking a cleaver and with a gentle whack, embedded it into the skull, just above the ear. He worked the cleaver around, then prised the top of the head open, exposing brain. I let out a low whistle. He looked at me. I nodded.

There’s a reason why we’re holed up in this specific restaurant. There’s a reason why we took shelter at Aling Lucing’s and not at, say, The Orchid. The biggest reason is because we both love sisig. Erwin and I, we worship the dish. Couldn’t get enough of it. When the world was still sane, we would go through all the restaurants in Angeles that served sisig, but we would always come back to Aling Lucing’s, not because it had the best version–the dish is a matter of taste, and Erwin and I each had our favorites–but because it was where it was first served to the public, and so this where people said it was first created.

Every cook’s dream is to create a dish so fantastic, so unique that their name is forever attached to it. The most famous example is the Earl of Sandwich, who, in 1762, asked his manservant to place a slice of meat between two pieces of bread so that he could eat without leaving his card game. Aling Lucing did the same thing with sisig.

Every Filipino knows what sisig is. It is practically the national pulutan, which means that it’s the kind of food  you eat when you go drinking, though you can have it as a meal as well. What it is is basically pork face–cheeks, snout, ears–stuff you don’t normally eat, minced into bite-sized pieces about the size of half a kernel of corn, fried with onions and chili peppers and served on a sizzling plate. There are different variations. There’s wet sisig, which is chewy and slightly rubbery with more of a piggy taste, and there’s dry sisig, where everything is cooked to a crisp (the kind I prefer). Some versions have egg in them, others have mayonnaise. Some cooks like to boost flavor by adding other pork parts: sometimes liver, sometimes heart, sometimes brain. It comes to you sizzling hot. You add soy sauce, Tabasco, and a little calamansi before mixing everything together so that you get a big brown oily mess that you eat with rice. Looks and sounds gross but tastes awesome. Goes well with beer, and is greasy enough to coat your stomach so that you can pack in more alcohol.

Sisig means ‘soured.’ They say it used to be made with sour fruits, and was only eaten by pregnant women to ease their discomfort. Somehow, this evolved into pig parts marinated in vinegar. There are many stories of how this dish caught its current macho reputation. My favorite is how a restaurant owner overheard some patrons talking about how they had managed to sneak away from their pregnant wives so that they could go drinking. The proprietor decided to play a little trick on her customers by serving them the dish that their wives were probably eating right at that moment. But the drunkards loved the sisig so much they asked for another order. Later, Aling Lucing decided to sell it en masse, and that was why people later said she invented it.

Erwin and I, stuck in this world, this wasteland of a city, missing friends and family, missing cold beer and good food, having nothing, no one, except each other, we figured, what have we got to lose? 

In my past life, I was a line cook working my way up to executive chef. Erwin ran his mother’s meat stall in the market, except they weren’t dirt poor, like when he started. His innate business skills, coupled with a natural affinity with the knife and chopping block, made him a lot more money than a guy who wore a bloody wifebeater as a uniform looked like he should make. I was a cook. He was a butcher. We both loved food. It was only natural.

I set about preparing the rest of the ingredients while Erwin finished his job. Chopped a few onions I was lucky to find in a house we broke into a few days ago, cut up a few slivers of bird’s eye chili that I found in one of the shelves, brought out the moldy rice we had been saving just for this occasion, cut up the calamansi–tiny Philippine lemons–the dish’s remaining link to its roots as a pregnant woman’s balm.

It had been tough collecting the ingredients, finding gas for the stove, sealing the restaurant and creating exhaust vents that wouldn’t alert the dead, but after two months of careful planning and painstaking execution, we finally succeeded.

I turned the gas low, placing a piece of wire screen over the flame as a makeshift grill. Erwin laid out the brain, ears and cheeks, which I grilled over the low fire. Our mouths watered at the smell of cooking meat. We had been subsisting on canned and semi-spoiled food for months, afraid that the heat and sound and smell of cooking might attract the dead. Tonight, we didn’t care. In a world where there is nothing to live for, you have to create your own goals, or go mad. This was ours. A good meal, even if it was to be our last.

Once the meat was done, I sliced it into little pieces and threw them into the wok, where the onions and peppers were already sizzling. Erwin watched, unconsciously running a hand up and down the flat of his cleaver. The knife was the only thing he had taken from his past life. He kept it sharp all the time and never let it out of his sight. It reminded him of his family. I like to think that keeping it with him gave him a reason to live.

Our mouths watered as the smell wafted up, savory and meaty, the air filling with the faint sound of popping oil as the bits of meat curled up into themselves as they crisped and cooked. We saved the brain for last. Erwin scooped up a bit and threw it in and I stirred it around, sauteing it into the mixture. We hadn’t eaten in two days and I could hear our stomachs rumbling. But this hunger went beyond the physical. We didn’t go through all this trouble just to fill our bellies. I’m still not sure why we did it, why we took so much trouble to eat the dead. Maybe it was a bit of defiance against our unwitting masters. Maybe it was an attempt to find control in a chaotic world. But most probably, it was to fulfil the desire to taste good food again.

I was a line cook in a fancy hotel when the world ended. I would never get the chance to make it to Executive Chef. Erwin had been a butcher. We were good at what we did back then and now, in this filthy new world, we had no choice but to get better. We had to, if we wanted to survive.

When the sisig was done, I put it on a sizzling plate and squeezed the calamansi over it. The tiny lemons were the only truly fresh thing we had. I found them growing from a bush in one of the houses we were going through, and it was their discovery that made us decide that it was time for this little experiment. Erwin and I sat at the table, looking at our dinner of rice and sisig. It would have been perfect if we had beer to wash everything down, but that would have been too much to ask for, and the gods are not that kind.

We looked at each other, tempted by the smell, eerily similar to the original, fried pork slick and oily, unsure about what we were about to do, unsure about what would happen after. There were many scenarios. We could die.We could become infected. We could become immune. Or nothing would happen, and we would live to kill and cook again. We could open a restaurant, feed other survivors. I would be Executive Chef. Erwin would be whatever he wanted. Life would go on. The dish in front of us represented all these possibilities. Erwin took a deep breath, spooned some sisig onto his plate, then some rice. I did the same. 

We scraped rice and some sisig onto our spoons, shoved them into our mouths. Pretty soon, we were eating hungrily, everything that came before, forgotten. For one short instance, we were two boys eating at Aling Lucing’s again, back when it was still a restaurant. We may not know what was going to happen to us tomorrow or the next week or the next minute, but for now, we didn’t care. For once during this torturous ordeal, we were allowed to live in the present, and it tasted glorious.

This short story was first published in the Uno magazine issue dedicated to murdered film critic Alexis Tioseco. Sisig was his favorite dish.

yvetteuytan

Yvette Tan is a multi-awarded author of horror fiction and a lifestyle writer for major local and international titles.