Mrs Elizaga had been standing for some time in the middle of the living room with one hand touching her throat and a broom in the other, while she stared at the front door, which was firmly shut and bolted; through the gaps between the door and its jambs streamed the harsh light from outside like metal blades. Clods of dirt had been gathered at her feet, and the blue plastic dustpan stood, as if waiting, in one corner. She was used to keeping house and did so with as much fervor even after the children had all gone to families of their own and even years after her husband’s death. But that day she thought that all that had been taught her in housekeeping—or rather, everything that had been her practice—was incorrect and that her entire life dedicated to that task as wife and mother had been a mistake. But perhaps, she thought, it was because what she expected to come home anytime that day was a husband coming home from the grave.
The city government had declared that day as an official day of atonement, and those that had been shot down in the street, gunned down by the Death Squad, motorcycled assassins tasked to rid the city of its drug dealers and petty thieves, would rise from the grave and come home to their families, no matter how long ago the assassination might have been. Mrs Elizaga’s husband died 3 years ago, and they had moved on since. So how was she to figure out the best way to keep house for a dead man “coming home,” as the government had put it—although what home was, no one cared to elaborate? But definition was the least of Mrs Elizaga’s concerns, having to contend with the unprecedented fact that a husband was on his way home from the grave.
Her husband’s job had been dangerous, she recognized that, realized the true nature of that job only when she saw him wide-eyed dead in the street that sunny afternoon. He had been, in a way, courting death through his job, while she kept house and took care of the children, making sure that all was well and clean before he returned home from work, thinking all the while his work had been decent—or at least legal. But surely that did not mean that returning from the grave was the same as coming home from work.
So now, she did not know as she stood there in her housedress, glued to that spot in the living room, because it had been years, and no one was even remotely prepared for a dead man coming back home. Would he be in tatters? Would he be asking for food? Or would he demand for it? Would he ask for his children? And most importantly, would he even still have flesh? Expecting ghosts would have been easier to handle. Come to think of it, he had never haunted her, or them for that matter; did not visit them in their dreams; did not appear in shadowed corners, take form through the dust motes in the beams of sunlight slanting through the windows in warm, quiet afternoons; no random shuffling from upstairs. Nothing but complete and ringing silence, especially after the burial, when everyone had gone home and Mrs Elizaga had cleaned up after the wake. The first thing she did back then, she remembered, was sweep the floor. And she did so with relative ease compared to this day as she stood somehow dumbstruck in the living room, expecting for his return.
She wondered how the other wives were doing. If she only knew someone who would be in the same predicament! But she knew no one; had refused the phone calls from concerned groups that rallied against the summary killings; choked up on her tears instead since the day she saw her husband in the street, eyes dead and wide, as if he were glowering at her; the trickle of blood from his lips could have been his very last words for her.
But now was not the right time to remember all that, because she had to know the exact measures of housekeeping. For sure there were, even to some slight degree, some differences for the situation she was in. She looked around the living room, at the dust motes softly falling through the beams of sunlight like feather-light rain, and the silence rang, briefly broken now by a knock at the door that startled her, however soft that knocking was. Mrs. Elizaga, with a hand on her throat and holding a broom with the other, imagined herself unlatching the door and opening it, smiling as how she used to do it, wearing that dead smile in days when she was beside herself, like she was now; all this, she imagined, glued to that spot in the living room and about to move, until she realized the clods of dirt at her feet and the blue plastic dustpan in the corner, and then came that gentle knocking again, but she must not have heard it this time, overtaken by not knowing what to do and by having done nothing at all for not knowing what to do in the first place.
Julian dela Cerna works from home.