WHEN I first bought flowers from Lucia, about four white chrysanthemums arranged with leaves in a small native basket cost P50.
Buying cut flowers was anathema until Papang died. When my sister and I came with him to visit my grandparents and brother in the cemetery, we brought a pail holding whatever blossoms grew in our garden: yellow bells, purple tops, even red cats’ tails (which lent our reused milk cans-turned-vases a dramatic air like actresses trailing feather boas).
In summer, when only the bougainvillea was resplendent, Papang clipped santan from bushes growing near the graves. Until I read in a library book how Persephone stayed in the netherworld for a third of the year due to the pomegranate seed Hades tricked her into eating, I took out the filament at the center of each tiny blossom and sipped the sweet beads of nectar.
I did not want to be trapped with the dead, drinking bone-juice nectar. The underworld I imagined had the moldy scent of flower stems rotting in the slush left in the cans we threw away.
Lucia lent matchboxes to those who bought candles. Walking to the cemetery, I realized I forgot to bring the pack that held the candles, brush, and rags for cleaning the graves. Too early for the stores but Lucia had already laid out her flowers and candles at the side of the cemetery entrance.
After I chose candles, Lucia offered a box of matches, saying I could return it on my way out. On my next visit, I resolved to buy her flowers.
The blossoms were wilted. Lucia asked if I wanted brighter colors. Choosing a batch with fewer blossoms rimmed by brown, I said my father preferred white for grave flowers.
When a floral basket fetched P150 last year, Lucia still had white mums for me because I told her he liked it that way.
Lucia’s daughter owned the stall across the street. Her daughter, the guards, and other vendors called Lucia “ang tiguwang (that old person).”
Lucia also referred to her daughter in the third person: “si tambok (the fat person).”
Sometimes a grandson helped Lucia. A young person is fleeter at grabbing the baskets and jostling with other vendors when cars slowed down before entering the cemetery.
When the young man was not around, Lucia watched as the other vendors snagged sales. It’s not only the heat that reduces Lucia’s blooms into brown-lined dolorosas.
Once, Lucia had only yellow mums. She offered to ask “si tambok” for white mums. I surprised Papang with yellow ones that day.
I never visit the dead on the busy feasts of the saints and the souls. I like the long exhale of silence lying over the graves, thinking when I will outdo Persephone and take one more pomegranate seed.