Death Mask

by Rossel Audencial (Fiction)

The dig site was near the bank of the river this time. It was three o’clock in the afternoon of a Saturday. The sun was bright and scalding. Ben, however, did not care about this as he skipped his way through the line of tall grass to go to where his uncle and his group were busily digging.

His uncle’s group of three men were shovelling soil from a little ditch when he arrived. He grasped one of the remaining shovels and started digging according to his uncle’s instructions. The ground was hard and compact, with stones and rocks under it. They methodically worked until the sun set and uncovered a wooden enclosure, painted black, with two planks fitted tightly on top. It was a coffin, his uncle declared.

They dug and cleared the soil at the sides and hauled it up to level ground. It was as heavy as a sack of rice. To prove if he’s right, Ben’s uncle used a sharp and thin knife to cut the vine-looking ropes that keep the planks shut. He then pried one of the planks open and it creaked as it loosened. He did the same with the plank beside it. He called on to one of his companions and they lifted one of the planks. A musky smell wafted out. They covered their noses with their hands. Another plank was removed and revealed something that made them look closer inside.

There lay in the coffin a skeleton all intact, from the long bones of its leg up to its skull. And instead of flesh, ornaments form the eyes, eyebrows, nose, and lips of the face.

“Gold!” exclaimed Ben’s uncle. “It’s a golden death mask!”

It was said that the ancient people placed a death mask made of gold to ward off evil spirits that may steal the dead body of their loved ones. It was made of pure gold which was abundant in the past.

The four of them agreed not to tell anyone about their discovery. The death mask will surely get the attention of rich individuals who would pay a fortune just to have it.

Ben stayed for supper outside his uncle’s tent who decided to watch over the coffin until it is brought to the museum. A bonfire of dried grasses and twigs lit their faces as they ate. As the twilight deepened, he listened to the stories of the diggings that took place in the city some years ago. His uncle was mostly sad about the artifacts that were sold to affluent personages who would buy them for a huge amount.

“What will they do with those artifacts, Uncle?” Ben asked.

“They’ll put them in their private museum,” his uncle replied.

“What’s wrong with that?” Ben said. “They would still preserve those artifacts.”

“Yes, but they would bring them to a bigger city,” his uncle explained, looking at the direction of the coffin covered with a tarpaulin. “These artifacts reveal how our ancestors lived before us, and that they lived and died on this same ground. They should stay here with us where they belong.”

“But, Uncle, there was no museum yet in the past. When artifacts were sold to those rich people, we are assured that they’re preserved.”

“Even when the museum was already built, selling of artifacts was still rampant. I just can’t understand those diggers who sell their finds for money. Don’t they realize that when they sell those artifacts, it’s as if they’re selling themselves, too? They forget that these artifacts link them to their past and that past tells them who they are at the present. The past holds our identity as a people. The artifacts show us our distinct history and culture. When we sell them, we forget our past. We forget who we are.”

Ben agreed with his uncle. He would love to see the death mask in the museum.

The next day, Ben went to the mall. His eyes scanned the stalls as he walked. He stopped and leaned on the glass of a stall selling jewellery. He smiled at the sales lady who greeted him.

He directed his eyes to the rows of paired rings and spotted one pair, placed upon a red velvet case. Those shiny and round silver metals beckoned to him to touch them. Their glittering finesse opened in his heart a pining so powerful to see one of them in Helen’s finger.

Helen is his first love.  That day he first laid his eyes on her, he knew that she is special. She smiled at him back then. His heart leapt and fluttered. They were inside the city’s museum. His class and her class had the same schedule for the required tour around it. As the curator explained the history of each of the artifacts, he was watching her from behind. From then on, he became her secret admirer from a distance. He learned that she’s taking up BS Nursing while he is on his second year in BA Liberal Arts. They became friends when she came to him one day and asked help for an assignment. She would like to interview his uncle about his digging experience and finds. He introduced her to him and she was able to accomplish what she needed to do. From then on, they would meet, talk, or go out together sometimes.

 

Today was the day that he will confess his feelings. He will then ask her to be his officially. He’s nervous. How will she react? Will she accept him? All these are whirling in his mind as he waits for her in the bench where they agreed to meet.

“Ben!” He whipped his head to the direction of the voice—Helen, wearing a pink dress. For him, the world stood still—only she and he were alone in that moment. She walked towards him slowly. He stood to meet her, but saw someone at her back.

“Sorry, I’m late. My Dad here insisted that he would like to meet you,” she said.

“Hello Ben, I just can’t wait to meet the person my daughter is so enthusiastic about,” Mr. Alonzo said, smiling as he stretched his hand for a handshake.

“I-It’s nice to meet you, sir,” he stammered as he shook hands with Helen’s father.

Mr. Alonzo suggested that they find a place where they could chat. They chose a nearby restaurant. Deep inside, he began to be worried. He couldn’t afford to pay for their food, but he felt relieved when Mr. Alonzo said it’s his treat. While waiting for their order, Mr. Alonzo mentioned about him having an uncle who’s a digger to which he said yes. They ended up reviewing Helen’s interview with his uncle in a past assignment.

Mr. Alonzo spoke of the various artifacts he had seen in his travels around the Philippines. Most of those he mentioned were not even familiar with Ben, but the nineteen-year-old boy listened with rapt attention and kept on nodding his head. Helen would sometimes correct her father for some of the details about his own travels and of the artifacts he collected so far. The father joked that his daughter is like a curator. They all laughed.

“I wonder if you’re uncle has uncovered something new these days.” Mr. Alonzo looked at him straight in the eye. Those piercing eyes examined him.

Helen turned to him, too, waiting for his reply. He looked back at each of them, the father, then the daughter–his love—who smiled at him. Warmth surged in his heart.

“A-actually, yes,” he stammered to answer, addressing Mr. Alonzo.

“Really?” Mr. Alonzo looked at him with more interest. Helen’s eyes gleamed.

“Yesterday, we had uncovered a coffin,” he said. He could feel a tightening of his gut which gradually dissipated the warmth he felt a moment ago. He ignored it.

“You’re there?” Helen asked, excited.

“Yes, I helped my uncle in digging it out.” Helen uttered ‘wow’ which made his heart swell with pride. “We also found a death mask made of gold.”

Helen’s eyes grew wide upon hearing it and urged him to describe it. Mr. Alonzo was silent until he finished.

“Where did you find it?”

“Near the river.”

“Very interesting.”

Ben was not able to confess his feelings to Helen that day, but he felt so happy that her father seemed to approve of him. Mr. Alonzo even invited Ben to visit at their house. All that time, Helen was smiling at him. However, he could not understand why he felt sad and uneasy after their meeting.

On Monday morning, Ben received a text message from Helen. Mr. Alonzo invited him to come to their house tonight. Because of this, his classmates couldn’t help but notice a wide smile plastered in his face and his energy was higher than usual the whole day. That afternoon at ten minutes before five, he ran out of their classroom the moment the bell rang even though his teacher was still giving an assignment. His feet seemed to fly through the stairs from the third up to the first floor, bounding lightly in the concreted hallways. He didn’t hear the calls from some friends in the corridors as he sprinted away, maneuvering his way through the crowd of students who were coming out from their classrooms.

He stopped outside Helen’s classroom to catch his breath. There were girls chatting inside; he heard Helen’s voice.

“…transfer back to Manila for the rest of the year,” Helen said.

“What do you mean? How about Ben?” said another girl.

“What about him? I just befriended him because Dad wants to be updated with the diggings here in the city. And he’s planning to buy that death mask Ben’s uncle uncovered last week…”

Ben stood frozen outside the door. His tiredness was all gone in an instant. He couldn’t believe what he heard. Is it really Helen talking? Maybe, it’s another girl talking about another Ben. The girls inside chuckled, teasing Helen about something. She shouted “Hey, stop that!” which made the girls tease her more loudly. But no! He knew Helen’s voice very well. Helen? He thought…

And it slowly dawned on him, the realization that he had revealed what was supposed to be a secret between him and his uncle. Guilt washed over him multiplying the aching of his heart. His feet started running again in their own accord, away from Helen’s classroom…

He had to tell his uncle. He had to say to him he’s sorry. The death mask was supposed to be a secret. He ran through the tall grasses to come to his uncle’s tent. The ground crunched as he stepped on twigs and dried grass. The rays of the sun were waning in the east. He could hear the drumming of his chest. He could feel his breath draining, but he didn’t stop running. He had to see his uncle.

When he was near enough, however, he could hear voices coming from the dig site. He slowed down and turned to walking until he saw a throng of people gathered around the ditch where they uncovered the coffin, barricaded by a yellow tape. Ben also saw another group of people gathered around the coffin beside his uncle’s tent already spread on the ground. A man was laying a measuring tool at its wall plank from one edge to the other edge and scribbling something at a notebook. A woman was clicking her camera at the coffin and the people around it. Two more men were squatting down and examining the skeleton closely; they were carrying clip boards in their hands.

He looked around, but he could not find his uncle.

“Ben?” someone tapped him at his shoulder.

He turned around and recognized one of the diggers who were with them that day they uncovered the coffin. “Where’s Uncle, Manong?”

“He was brought to the nearest hospital. Just this afternoon, three men came here and forced him to sell the death mask we found. When your uncle wouldn’t give in, they started beating him. Fortunately, we arrived in time with the museum’s men and stopped them from almost killing your uncle and stealing the death mask.”

Ben could not move for a long time even after the digger left him. He stood rooted on the spot in the middle of the people coming to and going away from the dig site. Their voices became babbles in his ears. He saw the coffin nearby but not the people around it. He saw the golden death mask glinting in the setting sun. Indeed, it warded off evil spirits. He thought it smiled at him, a sad one.

 

Ben couldn’t help but be nervous. He had memorized every detail of the artifacts displayed in the glass panels. He rehearsed his lines and traced his steps around back and forth a hundred times, simulating his rounds with the visitors who are mostly students. He had dreamed and waited for this day to come and had done all the necessary preparations, but still he could feel his hands trembling and his chest pounding hard. Ten minutes before opening time, he stood at the side of the glass doors which open in the middle, flexing his fingers to calm his nerves.

At exactly nine o’clock, the glass doors were flung open and a group of students in uniforms, ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ as their eyes roamed around the hall. With a loud voice, Ben greeted them and introduced himself as the new curator of the city’s museum. The students, turning attentive, gathered in front of him and listened as he started his account of the museum’s background. He then called them to follow him as he led the way to the different glass panels, pointing and explaining the historical dates and significance of the artifacts within. Some students remained silent as they followed him into the inner hall, hanging on to his every word; his voice booming and reverberating around the walls. Only a few asked curious questions to which he answered enthusiastically.

As a highlight of their tour, he brought them to a glass panel at the centremost part of the inner hall. There the students saw a painted black coffin made of wooden planks and lying inside was a skeleton still intact from its skull to its legs. He didn’t miss to say that he was among the diggers who uncovered it five years ago. This made some students exclaim ‘really!’ and they eagerly listened to him as he narrated his digging experience. But he didn’t tell them that he also lost his first love five years ago, that he didn’t see her again after that Monday evening, and that his uncle lost one of his legs.

Ben then told them to move to the other side of the glass panel. As the students leaned around the glass, looking closely at the ornaments there, he spoke:

“That is a golden death mask. It was said that our ancestors put it on the face of the dead body of their loved ones to ward off evil spirits. It was made of gold because our land was rich in gold in the past.”

Some students uttered ‘wow’ as their eyes turned to him and back at the artifact. Ben also looked through the back of the students to the death mask inside the glass panel. He saw it smiling at him like the smile of his uncle, proud and happy.

 

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