It is a useless life that is not consecrated to a great ideal. It is like a stone wasted on the field without becoming a part of any edifice.
– Jose Rizal
Thusly separated, Maria Clara is given time to be introduced gaily by her proud father to the visitors, and unconsciously but swiftly to take over as the focal point of the gather. And well is it deserved! She does not have Capitan Tiago’s small eyes, but wide ones with long lashes shining with honest feeling. It proves hard not to be entranced, for even when greeting a Sangley trader she shows only interest and respectful courtesy. She brims over with curiosity at the exotic accents of his garb.
Doña Victorina fusses over her, while Padre Damaso stands beside her with a blessed smile. Padre Sybila, that pretty debater addresses her and from her smile and it appears he has drawn her into a conversation. I have already withdrawn, content merely to watch from a distance. I look past the people in the middle of the room towards the other person similarly contemplating her luminous presence. He is a young Franciscan friar, emaciated and pale.
Our eyes meet. He looks away, discomfited. Lancing across the distance, there is only my murderous intent.
This person is Padre Salvi, Padre Damaso’s replacement as curate of San Diego.
And by Rizal’s words, the person who in the end will conspire to have me killed. Who will blackmail Maria Clara with the knowledge of her true parenthood, to take the letters of love and longing as I had sent her as somehow evidence to seize and arrest me as a subversive. And in the end, to forcefully seize Maria Clara’s maidenhood, in that convent where she had thought herself safe away from the cruelty of the world. Repeatedly, he will turn Maria Clara’s blessed beauty into her life’s curse.
I close my eyes and lean back upon the windowsill. Likewise I shiver. But it would not be just to kill a man for sins he has yet to commit.
I now know that Capitan Tiago and Padre Damaso also slake their lusts through coercion. Even if less with violence, but through the fear of their position, the act loses none of its horror. In this time, there is no such thing as the protection of law for young native women. Who will they report it to? The Guardia Civil? The priests and the cabeza de barangay appoint their officers!
As if sensing my bitterness, Googol the dog approaches and barks at me.
The bodiless spirit [Googol] flashes a box in my vision, and letters fill out automatically.
No, I do not want a Death Note.
Let me verify. Yes, it remains fictional.
I could probably count in one hand the celibate priests in this land. If I were to start poisoning people for their sins, perhaps I would depopulate most of the principia responsible for national administration. Though I suppose this remains the same for politicians of any era.
“Don Crisostomo, if you would allow you me to speak with you?”
I open my eyes to see the blond young travel writer from earlier. “Señor Mata. Of course.” I smile. “Did you know your name means ‘eye’ or ‘to be awake’ in Tagalog? A most auspicious sign.”
“Thank you, I have been informed so by Señor Laruja on our journey here. Señor Ibarra… I must say I have been very impressed by the depth of your knowledge. I did not expect…” here he catches himself, for to call me but a mestizo would spurn how my Spanish heritage seems to prominent “I did not expect seven years in Europe to have such an influence. Truly, you inspire me!”
“You are too kind, Señor. You have taken this journey too of your own volition, that bravery and hunger for knowledge makes us kin.”
“It does, it does, does it not?” he laughs. “I would like to ask you a question…”
“What do you wish to know?”
“Two questions, actually. Have you always been so inquisitive? How do was your education here in comparison to Europe?”
“I have deeply benefited from my education here, at the firm but careful instruction of our esteemed friars. But of course, as you understand, there was less emphasis on education in the sciences. Science is moving much faster than we can print our textbooks. A grounding in philosophy and law is a good foundation for any enterprise.”
“So how did it come to be? How did you so extensively acquire so much knowledge? What is it that makes you different?” What makes us so different?; he wants to ask. We are close to the same age; why is it that a pureblood Spaniard as he must feel envy?
“… a monomaniacal focus, I believe. A shameless curiosity and a hoarder’s instinct for trivia. Of my fellow students in Madrid, I have seen no few forego friendships and luxuries and leisurely pursuits to advance their studies. But it is my mestizo heritage” here I breach the topic he obviously wants to discuss “that allowed me to see that marks and accolades from academia were only temporary badges.
Knowledge is more than just names and figures and explainable concepts. Knowledge… true knowledge, is a recognition of *patterns*. Too often we think of each discipline as worth focus in themselves, that it takes too much effort to be good at everything… better to be a master at one than to have reliable expertise in none.
But if you think about how advances in one discipline can further assist another, the patterns will begin to lock in. In truth, it was really was submarines that captivated me. A complex machine, a confluence of disciplines, both mechanical and martial.” Here he snickers, for during our conversation at the table, I had not disguised the childlike love I had for the concept of submarines. “A fleet of them would require less metal than a battleship, yet each of them a threat to the strongest of capital ships. And to fight them, the only thing you can do is to make small torpedo-boat and submarine destroyers that have to be fast with light armament and practically no armor… for you need a great many of them to escort and screen your battleship.
Thus the mere *existence* of your submarine threatens your enemy to spend greatly on ships, draining their economy. It is a magnificent counterforce. And I thought, how could I build one? How could I own one? I cannot join the Navy, I have my responsibilities as a future landowner… as I learned more about the difficulties, I fell into despair.
But every piece of knowledge fits into something in the larger pattern. Even useless bits of knowledge can give insight to a person’s mind. It was the knowledge that we had no industry here, a mostly unskilled labor force, that prompted me to look deeper into simpler means of manufacturing and the practical knowledge of how to craft engines and simple labor-saving machines.
And I thought; there is no harm in this. Technology such as this could make money.”
With widened eyes Julian Mata looks up at me. “Truly, I have underestimated you, Señor Ibarra! You are more than an inspiration! This insight you have! Are you not any less than a genius?!”
“Genius knows no age, nor race, nor sex, nor age” I reply. “But do not also underestimate how much genius is about a consistent work ethic with enough emotional distance. Talent alone can bring you so far, the great many prodigy is wasted and burnt out early, never to realize their true potential.”
“E-earlier, we have been discussing, if the Indio is indolent by nature or if it is our responsibility to have instructed them wrongly. I hope you will forgive, I offer no insult, but as a mestizo you have proven well to me the truth of the latter.” At my gracious nod, he continues “I must ask – what do you think? Is the Indio really indolent by nature?”
I look past him, my thoughts running together. This I did not ask [Googol]. This is my own judgment as Crisostomo Ibarra, a man of these times.
“The Indio is indolent because effort affords him not. He exerts no further because he has nothing to prove.”
“So you agree with me then.”
“First I must say that for this point I do not need to differentiate between the negrito, the indio, the mestizo, and even the insular, when I speak of the Filipino. If the Indio is lazy, then how much more would it show as lazy those who do no work by their hands but amass wealth from the work of others? If you say that administration and the burdens of rulership take their own hard effort – you are correct. This is the crux of the error, that people separate physical effort and mental effort as if both cannot be difficult on their own. You and I, there would be many who could call us indolent dreamers, but it is not that easy to follow your dreams for a newer world.
But this, I will say clearly: If the indio is indolent, then we are all indolent. Stay and you too will feel it. It is the nature of living in the Philippines. It is both the blessing and the curse of these islands.”
“That… is somewhat alarming, Don Crisostomo. What do you mean? Is there really a curse?”
“The Philippines is the Pearl of the Orient, and like a pearl as long as it is sits safe and protected within its clam it shall not glisten. Only when taken outside of the shell can it shows its beauty. So is the Indio. Take him outside, put him elsewhere, where he can be judged only by his behavior and his actions can bring shame to his people – and he shall prove himself. If he is lazy, he will attempt to be creatively lazy, instead of avoiding work he will simply attempt to do more in less time. If he is a cheat, he will cheat in your favor, should you rely on him to acquire your comestibles. If he is ungrateful, simply threaten to replace him with a Chinaman. His pride will not stand for it.”
I pace around him. “There is no better man at hand you can have than the native… in any place except the Philippines. Because here he will always laze around because only stupid fool foreigners hurry over trifles. Excelling at anything is not going to promote them beyond their social class; great wealth only attracts envy and enemies. The priests have taught well the virtues of humility and duty in the face of God. Three hundred years and seventy years have he passed in this land in this manner, just floating along. Ease off. Sleep. Eat. Be happy. The land loves him. In his home he has achieved peace and contentment beyond understanding.”
“You sound like you glorify laziness.”
“Laziness… or to be more exact, convenience… has ever been a prime motivator for human progress. What is the steam engine for if not to do the work that muscles cannot? Why do we have steamer ships if we were not so impatient? Why do we long for high office and profit in business if not to earn more for less effort?” I smile. “If it is the indio in my blood that loves the rumbling symphony of motor-engines, then so be it. I always want to do more with less effort.
So I looked up methods of irrigation, of trade and business management, and machines for the factories and ships I want to build. With more wealth or machinery, the less a person must directly spend effort to produce the desired result.
It would be so easy for an administrator to take it easy. Simply do not abuse the Indio, and he will serve you faithfully. The Philippines for the past three hundred years has been mostly safe from the ravages of war and conflicting ideologies; here a man may rest easy. The Philippines is a gracious host; she invites us all to take off our slippers and sit in peaceful contemplation of the bond between man and God in a rocking chair.”
“So, do you believe that the indio is lazy, just as everyone who comes to live in the Philippines comes to feel indolent?”
“No, I do not believe the indio is lazy by nature. I believe that the indio is smart enough to do only about enough of the work he is expected to do. To ask him to do more – the way to do this is not to beat him into obedience and fervor. No, this will only inspire resentment, and ever more to get him to apply his wits to make you lower your expectations. In this, I feel it is even more a waste of potential. Nor can you tempt a content man with the prospect of more wealth, for to have more money is to invite more troubles.
No. Instead, you must inflame his soul.”
As said Napoleon Bonaparte, and with this he cut a blaze through Europe. “I see what you mean. That does sound reasonable. I have been thinking of this, I wanted to raise this objection earlier, but you have put it to words so much the better! So how would you ‘inflame his soul’, Don Crisostomo?”
I look past him to see Maria Clara speaking with her aunt. She glances towards me, impatience leaching onto her body language.
“That is a topic we will have to discuss later. Perhaps you would be inclined to exchange letters discussing our interests?”
“Yes! Yes, certainly I would! I see now how you could have acquired such a breadth of knowledge, if you exchange many letters for many interests! It makes sense. Don Crisostomo, from the bottom of my heart, I thank you. I will not forget this most valuable method you have shown me.”
“And my thanks as well, Señor Mata. It was certainly my pleasure to have come to know you.”
But quickly he leaves my mind, for the weight of hundred years is easier to bear than this stare I feel upon my form. Patience, I must have patience, all else can wait, but every moment stretches longer than a century.
Finally, I see the old woman nod. Lo, what light over yon sala breaks! Not Eimmart, but just as astronomical. Her smile – !
I would burn for that smile.
I will not tell you more about what I feel about Maria Clara because I could go on forever. Our eyes met again and a yawning eternity stretched before us, a painful crevasse as we longed to touch and make sure of each other’s existence.
Our families have always been close, and we were first the best of friends. At the age of thirteen, just as she was about to blossom into womanhood, she was sent to live in a covent to undergo a strict religious education. I did not see her again, and afterwards I too went away to study in Europe. She was cloistered away in the Nunnery of Saint Catherine for seven years. Thus, our time apart spanned closer to a decade.
‘I have always expected you to be beautiful -‘ my eyes said, ‘But today you have made it clear you are the fairest to ever live.’
‘I have always expected you to be handsome -‘ her eyes seemed to say, ‘But I have always feared that you would not see me so lovely when you have traveled the world and met many beautiful women’.
Tia Isabel, Capitan Tiago’s sister and Maria Clara’s guardian coughed and directed us away from the middle of the room. We apologized profusely and tried to skip away with all the composure we could muster towards the window overlooking the inside courtyard. Tia Isabel’s squinted gaze follows us, ever alert for any impropriety.
Where has gone the easy companionship of our childhood? We have changed from friends into hopeful lovers, but now upon seeing each other it is all we can do to keep from blushing every time our eyes meet. We spoke of sweet nothings to each other, tepidly throwing compliments and accepting them in the spirit they are offered. Let us know each other once more. My friend, my love, show me how much you have changed yet remained the same.
“Ma-” I clamp my mouth shut. She giggles, hiding her face behind her fan.
“How have you not forgotten me? You have gone abroad in so many trips, seen so many great cities, and beautiful women! Surely, you could not have been thinking of me always.”
“Maria Clara, I could never forget. Think you that I would betray such a sacred vow? Do you remember – that night, that stormy night, when you found me weeping at my mother’s deathbed? You approached me, and laid your hand on my arm, and said, ‘you have lost your mother- I have never had one’ and wept with me. She loved you like her own daughter, as we wept together, there I swore I would love you and make you happy no matter what Heaven had in store for me. And there, through flashes of lightning, I swear I could faintly see a smile on the pale features of my mother’s corpse. Maria Clara!
Ever you have been my savior, in the desolation and loneliness of the soul in those foreign lands. I could hear your voice whispering in the valleys, and in the mists I could almost believe your touch. Maria Clara, never, never.”
Never, never, shall I allow sadness to crease your face. Not in this life. It is all I can do not to say ‘Come away with me, Maria Clara! Let us go somewhere else; to Europe, to the United States! Let us go, and let this nation earn its own freedom, I spurn this power, let us be elsewhere and be happy!’
But you would refuse me, wouldn’t you? Because such kindness you have, you would not abandon anyone if you knew you could help them. That is what I love most about you. You deserve a better fate than what Rizal bestowed upon you.
“I too have never forgotten you – even if my confessor bade me to do so, and imposed many penances. I remembered our games, and you were always so slow, and would lose our games, and I would try not to hit you so hard. You would always try to cheat more than I did, and we would end up in scuffles. We were so young! When I recalled it in the darkness of the cloister, I was almost in tears. I missed you so much, Crisostomo, I missed having you to quarrel with, I missed having you to laugh with.”
Maria Clara, oh my love, it is only now I have the word. To everyone else you were always such the proper little girl. Only to me would you show your true face, my glorious angel.
“Do you remember that time you were so angry with me? We were still children and we had gone with your mother to bathe in the creek under the shades of think bamboo. On the banks grew many flowers and plants whose strange names you told me in Latin and Spanish, for you were even then studying in the Ateneo. But I paid you no attention, for I was occupied chasing after dragon-flies with bodies like needles and butterflies in all colors of the rainbow. I tried to catch them in my hands, or the little fish that slipped among the moss and stones by the edge of the waters.
You left me alone, and then returned with a crown of leaves and orange blossoms, and laid upon my head and called me Chloe.”
I thought at the time, it was specially apt; not just Chloe as the blooming Demeter, daughter of Rhea, but mostly in the story of Daphnis and Chloe.
“But your mother snatched away my crown and after mashing it with the stone mixed it with the tree bark which she was to use as a shampoo for our heads. And how tears came to your eyes and you said she did not understand mythology. But ‘Silly boy,’ she said. ‘See how sweet your hair will be then’, and I laughed and you were so offended you would not speak to me for the rest of the day.
On the way back to town, with the sun shining hot above our heads, I picked up some sage leaves that grew beside the path and gave you them to put under a hat so you would not get a headache. You smiled and held my hand and so we made up.”
I beam and take out my wallet, and show her a piece of paper within which were wrapped some dried, blackened aromatic leaves. “Your sage leaves,” I say. “As you have kept the memory close to your heart, so have I kept all that you have given me.”
My heart sings in exultation, for as she takes from close to her bosom a little pouch of white satin. “I have kept this close always to my heart. Do you know what it is?”
I shake my head. “It is the letter of farewell, the alibis of a deficient debtor.” She chides me for not sending her any more letters, but it was forbidden to allow the outside world to provide distractions in the convent. “I would read it to you, but not here. I will be kind enough not to air your private thoughts in public.”
I close my eyes. In another life, I would have been consumed with worry, as the contents of said letter would have struck me as a dagger unto the heart about my filial responsibilities.
‘My father wishes me to go away, in spite of all my pleadings. ‘You are a man now,’ he told me, ‘and you must think about your future and about your duties. You must learn the science of life, a thing which your fatherland cannot teach you, so that you may some day be useful to it. If you remain here in my shadow, in this environment of business affairs, you will not learn to look far ahead. The day in which you lose me you will find yourself like the plant of which our poet Baltazar tells: grown in the water, its leaves wither at the least scarcity of moisture and a moment’s heat dries it up. Don’t you understand? You are almost a young man, and yet you weep!’
These reproaches hurt me and I confessed that I loved you. My father reflected for a time in silence and then, placing his hand on my shoulder, said in a trembling voice, ‘Do you think that you alone know how to love, that your father does not love you, and that he will not feel the separation from you? It is only a short time since we lost your mother, and I must journey on alone toward old age, toward the very time of life when I would seek help and comfort from your youth, yet I accept my loneliness, hardly knowing whether I shall ever see you again. But you must think of other and greater things; the future lies open before you, while for me it is already passing behind; your love is just awakening, while mine is dying; fire burns in your blood, while the chill is creeping into mine. Yet you weep and cannot sacrifice the present for the future, useful as it may be alike to yourself and to your country.’
My father’s eyes filled with tears and I fell upon my knees at his feet, I embraced him, I begged his forgiveness, and I assured him that I was ready to set out—’
The memory of these words sends fiery lightning down my spine.
The day after tomorrow, it is the Day of the Dead, and nowhere can I light candles for my father’s soul. The horror of my father dying alone would have consumed me, the shame of all but abandoning him to my own gratification in Europe, it would have burned enough that I would cut short our sweet meeting. I watched my mother die, and for all that it pained me to see her corpse never to open eyes again, now I am alone. I would have rushed home to tend to my duties.
But it is too late, too late! Now I know my father’s bones have been exhumed months ago, and cast into the waters.
“Maria Clara, you know – that I must go to San Diego, for soon it shall be All Saint’s Day. It is up to your father to decide if your family shall spend the fiesta days there. This is a duty I cannot abandon, much as I might wish to remain here and spend time with you, and to speak with others about our common interests.”
Maria Clara cries out “Crisostomo, I will beg my father, and surely we shall meet again in a few days. I do so wish I could be there with you as you lay flowers upon your parents’ tomb.” I am an orphan now, and her heart aches for those departed who she too loved as much as her own parents. She had never known her mother, and my own she considered closer to her heart as such than Tia Isabel who raised her. Where Capitan Tiago doted on her, in my own father she saw the picture of a reticent father who carefully dispenses wisdom.
“Maria Clara, I have to ask from you a great favor-“
“Then only speak, and if it is in my power to do so…” and here her cheeks pink, “and if it is not too improper, I shall grant it, Crisostomo.”
“Ask me not how I know this, but somewhere in San Diego are two young sacristan, two young boys aged ten and seven. They are named Basilio and Crispin, the children of Sisa and Pedro. The youngest shall be accused of stealing church money. He did not, but it will not save him. To you and I, an amount of thirty-two pesos would be trifling, but it is not worth a boy’s life. So I beg you this – Maria Clara, I beg you to put these two boys under your protection. What I ask, Padre Damaso and Padre Salvi might question or defer, but from from you they will deny nothing.”
“Maria Clara, my dearest, weep not before the Virgin. You have within you a power you do not yet care to acknowledge. I beg you, my angel, to move forth and with an ease that might surprise you, save the lives of the innocent.”
Maria Clara’s ever-honest eyes narrow at me. I shiver. That look on her face, I love that too.