No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.
– Steve Jobs
But I did not return to San Diego alone. Doggol is always afoot, except when he is not, so should no longer be counted.
Accompanying me was an old, withered servant of the family. My father owned many properties in San Diego, but of course cash crops were useless without the buyers to receive and process its harvest. Therefore there must be a steward that must remain in the city.
He behaves towards me with the cringing servility I knew better to mistake for honest loyalty. Why? Because he is old enough to have known my grandfather.
Don Rafael was a kind man worthy of respect, but he does not know how much of Saturnino Ibarra’s temper would rule in my blood.
In another life, the answer would be simple. Plenty. My father’s temperance would have nurtured in me the long, simmering hatred I would express as Simoun, the filibustero.
“My own failing health and my own occupations have prevented me from returning, Señor. Capitan Tiago said he would have a tomb built, but… in the end, he did not. I had seen to your father’s grave, I have planted flowers over it and had a large cross erected.”
“And after that, it was no longer your problem to mind. I do not blame you for this. You have served my family’s finances well, your task in Manila is well enough to consume all your attention.”
“Señor Ibarra, I apologize again- I could have done more…“
“Señor Doroy, you have nothing to fear. You have graciously offered to accompany me to San Diego to show me my father’s grave, even with your health as it is.”
Yet I cannot act so kindly and grateful to this old man, for managing my father’s deals and properties while I was away. It must have been hard trying to prevent my father’s enemies from chipping away at the inert wealth of the Ibarras, while I lounged about in Europe. I have said my thanks, but I cannot be so impulsive.
‘I wish you would not be so kind’ his eyes seem to beg. ‘Not too cruel, but not too trusting.’ Not too much like my father. I must present an image of strength and certainty – because I am now responsible for the livelihoods of many.
He is called Tandang Doroy, a name with two meanings. The first meaning Old Doroy, for Cristiano Doroy had ever felt an old wary soul even as a young man. The second, meaning Rooster, for like a bantam in his youth he strutted around proudly in fine clothes that his service to a Spaniard afforded.
I am running through the strategies in my mind. I may need to have Old Doroy replaced, rewarded with a generous retirement package, or the things I will be doing will drive him into a stress-fueled heart attack. By Christmas I will be gifting everyone with too much ham. In both the literal and the Reb Brown sense.
Or maybe he would be strong enough to take it? To not be bribed or intimidated? If he but knew his family would be made safe, one should never underestimate the raw stubbornness of an old man.
The carriage rolls into San Diego, then past it. Some ways out of town and nestled among the rice fields is the cemetery, fenced in partly by stones and partly by bamboo. This separates this barrio of the dead from the world of men, but not venturesome pigs and goats from the neighborhood that occasionally feed and gambol among the graves.
It is no restful country for the dead.
We step off the dusty carriage, and bid its driver to remain and let the panting horses rest. My mind flashes to the spectacles of the for-profit graveyards of the future, with their manicured grass lawns and apartment tombs and their amazing lack of consecration and before I know it the words leak through my mouth – “We can do better than this.”
I squint at the sky and then exhale. This country. This whole damn century. God! “We pay for masses in service to our departed in Purgatory, but who takes service for the living? Do the dead even care where their bones lie? Cemeteries are not for the dead, but for the living.”
“I am not sure what you mean, Señor Ibarra. Good Christians should be buried properly, not like a heathen! We all owe it to our dead, for surely when we go to join them they will know if we treated their remains with respect or not!”
“And so in their memory we also light candles on their graves and pray over them. Graveyards are places so that the living can find their departed, and where laid down into the ground all men are finally equal,” I gesture towards the cemetery as we walk. “On All Souls Day we give offerings and pay for masses that our families may have temporary respite from Purgatory. I am simply saying this lack of organization is… irritating to me,”
I begin to move my palms in the air in tandem as if chopping up blocks. “Everyone in their proper place under heaven, but at least we could give everyone a lapida to make it easier for those who still live to find their graves.”
Sadly the Day of the Dead in the Philippines is not completely awesome as Mexico’s Day of the Dead, but more a sombre and desperate affair. It is said that a mass said on All-Saint’s Day and All-Soul’s Day is worth five or six any other times of the year.
“There are those who think that named gravestones and large tombs are merely for bragging’s sake. God already knows their names.” Then he adds in a small voice “It is the Tsino who make too much about the splendor of their ancestor’s graves. The prayers for their soul… each mass shortening the time they spend in Purgatory, I would think that would be more important to them.” To me; he does not say. He worries for his own sake, for he knows he is not long til the grave.
“Mmm. You would be fine with this for your own resting place? You were born here, in San Diego, but you work in Manila, and your children live in Malate. A much more orderly cemetery than this probably awaits.”
“I-if you mean that I should have sought better for Don Rafael, I accept this rebuke. But San Diego is his town, I cannot think he would wish to be buried anywhere else!”
“No, merely allow me to ask you this clearly – by this, do you mean to say that all Christians deserve a minimum of respect in their burial, but to ask for more decorations on their grave than a good sturdy cross is but useless egoism?”
“I am not sure…”
“It is not such a bad thing, you know. It is a very reasonable stance to take. There is no wrong answer here – it is just as well for a poor farmer to bury his wife and mother of the family, dead of cholera, in the corner of their farm to sanctify it in their eyes; as it is for a rich man to prepare a grand tomb while he yet lives, like the pharaohs of old. As you said, it is the prayers that are important.”
“Then I guess that is somewhat like what I mean. Forgive me, Señor, for I truly could not do more for your father’s sake.“
I nod benignly. Filipinos hate being pressured, and most of all they hate Socratic questioning. Many have written about the inscrutable Oriental mind, when often it is a simple as wanting but unable to say ‘get out of my face already’.
It all sounds as if you are trying to shame them with a ‘gotcha!’ moment, and so in such circumstances they would rather lie than commit, which unfortunately only adds to the frustration of the questioner. Leading questions are stupid questions, better not to waste time and ask straight out.
Except that simpler more forceful questions can add even more pressure, because the wrong answer might have even more immediate and painful consequences. ‘Who are you, a Spaniard?’ a gravedigger annoyed at his co-worker would say ‘Asking so many questions. Who commanded me to dig up a grave only twenty days old, in the dead of night, even while it is raining? To the devil with you! If I did know you to be a man like me, I would think you were a Spanish civilian.’
“No, it is fine. You have as much as you could have under the circumstances. I now owe you a favor, Señor Doroy.”
I glance aside towards Mount Makiling in the distance, the home of an immortal, and then enter this garden of the dead.
In the center of the cemetery stands a tall wooden cross set upon a pedestal of fitted stone blocks, held together by mortar made out of sand, lime, egg whites, and cane sugar. Odd as this recipe may be, the churches that still stand in your century attest to its efficacy.
But this shrine is one battered by wind and sun; the tin plate nailed upon the cross had long faded the letters INRI – Iesu Nazarenum Rex Iudareum, Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews – and below the cross are piled a heap of nameless skulls and bones that the gravedigger had indifferently thrown away from the graves he had dug. These are the poor forgotten remains of those dead whose families no longer could pay the fee for remaining interred in this cemetery. In their place lie new caskets; the old ones chopped up and burned for firewood.
“There, just behind that big cross, Señor!” Old Doroy points.
We step gingerly past the cross and the shallow burial mounds, and Old Doroy looks around confounded for the cross that marks my father’s grave. “Is it here, is it here, or there? I remember – there was a stone nearby. It is that one- but the earth has been disturbed!”
The old man notices the gravedigger regarding us with bland curiousity, who upon our approach doffs his salakot in respectful greeting. “Can you tell me, where is the grave that had the big cross?” Old Doroy asks him.
The gravedigger looks placidly towards the spot. “A big cross?”
“Yes, like this,” with his bamboo cane he traces out a Byzantine cross on the ground.
“The one with the flowers growing on it?”
“Yes, with adelfas, and sampagas and pensamientos, that is it!” Pink, white, and purple flowers; here none to be found. He offers the gravekeeper a cigar as incentive. “Now, man, tell us where is the grave and the cross.”
The gravedigger yaws and rubs at his ears. Then he says “Well… the cross, I have already burnt it.”
“Because the head priest ordered me to.”
Old Doroy’s eyes bulge out. He is at a loss for words. He looks to me helplessly.
‘Did you really not know about this?’ I wanted to ask. Perhaps Old Doroy was acting out some sort of face, trying to deflect blame in pretending he did not know that my father’s remains have been so shamed. But looking at him, the dismay in his face is real. It is plausible for him not to know if he spent all this time in the city, dealing in the indigo and sugar trade. I raise my hand, with my face still carefully expressionless, and gesture for him to continue.
“Then where is the grave? Surely you must remember, you can at least tell us where it is.”
The gravedigger shrugs. “The body is no longer there.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, in its place I have interred a woman there just last week,” he adds with a faintly rascally tone. “That one there.”
“You madman! Why have you done this! It has not been a year since we buried him! The fees for staying in this cemetery, we have paid for five years!”
He yawns. “I had to, you see, for the priest ordered it. Even though it was raining, even though I was sick, he had me dig it up to take it to the cemetery of the Chinese –“
For the first time here, I speak “And you did this, I trust?”
He quivers, for in the tone iofmy voice he has realized he is treading into dangerous waters. “Do not be angry, Señor. I did not bury him among those weak-kneed foreigners. It is better to drown than to be buried with the Chinamen, I said to myself, and so I threw the dead body into the wate-“
The world stops.
This right here is why Filipinos do not care to volunteer information.
This right here is why the Filipinos of this age do not care to rise up about abuses piled high on themselves.
This right here is emblematic of the ills of the nation as a whole. It is not that the Indio is indolent, but that he cannot look beyond his present inconvenience to the consequences of his decision to quit early. What lies in the future is in the future, it is not today; and today can be the same as tomorrow. As you can abide today, there is no temptation to seek for greater wealth and pleasures.
This man, beaten savagely by Padre Damaso for burying Don Rafael, had to dig up the grave and carry the still bloody, stinking bones all the way to the Chinese cemetery; there amid the flaming pain and the icy needle-like touch of the rain, could only look forward to even more painful labor digging a new grave. No; he must have thought; I cannot bear it. I cannot survive to go there, so let me cut this labor short and call it done.
He was sick afterwards, and survived after a week or so of agony tended only by charitable neighbors, since no one was willing to be the wife of a filthy gravedigger – and back to a mean life, where no one still respected him. He shows no respect for the dead nor to anyone, for he has never felt it, nor have any in him to give. Only by fear of pain is he motivated.
He is the nation unwilling to move or be moved, because he has nothing and in remaining nothing his only protection is being too pathetic to be bothered with. He is beaten for minding his duty, so he does not care to exert more in the sake of propriety or justice. As bad as his life, it could be worse; no tulisanes thinks he is worth robbing, no religious harpy orders him to do more for sake of appearances, and of his fate in Heaven he gives no mind. What little power he has, he lords over those under him, for it is the only thing in this life that gives him real pleasure.
I can empathize, truly.
And yet almost agonizingly slowly, yet faster than I can think, I see my cane rise up to smash him aside in the head. While Old Doroy’s cane is of light bamboo, mine is one of heavy polished hardwood, bought in the shops for its possible utility in self-defense.
Time resumes. Gasps erupt from the few townpersons already visiting and saying prayers in the graveyard, all of them struck just as numb by this sudden scandalous violence.
The gravekeeper drops, and lets out a keening wail. Surprised, Old Doroy steps fearfully away from me.
“Ibarra…” he whispers.
The rage passes, and there is only shame. But this man. This country. Right now, so much waste. So blind! Unable to see beyond the next moment, the next day!
There does not seem to be blood from the strike to his head from earlier, I hit mostly the cheek. It bruises, perhaps cut the inside of his mouth from his teeth, but not as dangerous as a hit straight to the temples might have been.
I am a hypocrite. I am indulging over what petty power I have over the defenseless. Are some behaviors too ingrained? Must a man first be broken before he can be rebuilt?
“I am Juan Crisostomo Ibarra,” I speak through clenched teeth. “Here once rested my father’s bones. In ordering them dug up, this is the reason why Padre Damaso is no longer the kura paroko of San Diego. Though it is said that he was transferred to a wealthier parish, his removal was ordered by the Gobernador-Heneral of the Philippines himself. That old Tiniente of the Guardia Civil had the attention of powerful people well beyond his station.”
I point away from the grave towards the gravedigger’s face. “Do you understand what this means?” Amazingly I can still see some hints of defiance and doubt in his face. In this time, beatings are still considered a form of punishment; men beat their children, teachers beat their students, women their maids, and few thought much of it. He has already been caned half to death before, this is not something new to fear anymore. And a man such as this, has very little left to lose. “Now so do you.”
I jab forwards lightly, right under his ribcage, and that was enough to send him coughing over and wheezing. A harmless blow to the diapraghm, but it looks and feels worse than that.
“You son of a whore! You shameless wastrel!” Old Doroy shouts at the gravedigger. “We should call for the Guardia!”
“It is not a crime to dig up a grave on a priest’s orders,” I respond. “Though I suppose the Guardia Civil would not even care, if anything should happen to such a careless gravekeeper.” I look around me, staring squarely at each scandalized face in turn.“Even in such a day as this. Such a fine day, is it not – good people of San Diego? How I have missed your faces!
If you have any problems come to me, for I will hear you. Or come at me, if you prefer, and I will receive you.”
“I apologize, Tandang Doroy, for letting this farce go for so long. I was so hoping that what I was told wrong, that after Padre Damaso’s passed, my father’s remains could at least be brought back. I would not have minded him being buried among the Chinese… if anything, my father would have thought it amusing.
In my life, he would have said, the Chinese would come to me begging for deals, but now in death I must beg for shelter under the overhangs of their home- tombs.”
Truly, he would! If he could but see what I know of the future’s Filipino-Chinese, he would laugh long and loud. Their tombs do merely look like miniature houses, but almost complete houses in their own right. You could look at them from the outside and think ‘I would rent this place’. Not such a terrible fate, is it? I would have been able to find and rebury him then! “
I jab at the gravekeeper again. He does not offer any defense. He could grab at my cane, he could run, but he does not. He merely cowers in place. Learned helplessness, this equanimity to suffering is what the Filipino has learned. Bahala na. What will be, will be. Acting out to defend oneself could only make it worse.
“What is your name, gravedigger?” Another light jab to his thighs. I feel like such a bully right now, but there is a point to all this.
“Bentong, Bentong Manghukay, I am!” Bentong who digs, such even appeared on his cedula personal; Roberto Manghukay. No family, no background, just this.
“You have done my family a… grave disservice. If you had simply done all as the Padre had asked of you, I would be rewarding you very greatly right now. All you had to do was to throw the corpse somewhere more easily found – buried in a shallow grave somewhere, into a hollow between the trees or some boulders! Anywhere except the rushing waters! Never did you think someone would care about the thing you carried, you resented it only for causing you pain!
Anything you want, I would have owed you a great favor, but in your laziness you have thrown away the chance for anything… anything, from a pension of ten pesos a month for the rest of your life, to a hectare or so of your own land! You are like the graves you dig! Empty and caring for nothing! ”
“Forgive me Señor!” he cries out. “I did not mean to insult you! I was ignorant, just tell me what to do and I will do it!”
He is cowering and covering his face. I jab at his armpits, causing him to recoil.
“Enough. Look at me.”
Slowly he lowers his arms. His eyes are wide with fright, despair, and not just a little bit of hate. Yes. I am everything you hate about this world, Bentong. Young, powerful, wealthy, self-assured, handsome – everything that is not you. This is the unfairness of everything.
I shift the hold of my cane from my right to my left hand. Then I reach behind my back and toss towards the gravedigger a leather bag.
“You are a man without dreams, Bentong. So I can only give you only the little that you think you deserve.” The pouch drops to the ground with a clink.
He freezes in place.
“There are all these people here who can witness that I have given you these thirty pesos,” more exactly, sixty pieces of Manila Mint 1885 King Alfonso XII 50-centavo silver coinage, “You have not stolen from me.” I tap at the ground with my cane. “Pick it up.”
“Señor, please, do not do this to me! I beg you!”
“There are consequences to all actions, including failing to act. Even people such as you, must feel this.”
Tittering and murmurs rise up from behind me, at this strange display. How odd that a man should be afraid of being offered money. How ludicrous a sight, a man on the ground begging away from being given money. But they also knew, deep in their heart, sometimes a gift can be poison. Perhaps it is an excuse, for a robber can be beaten to death by someone with the right social standing? No – I have said it is a gift, but then of course if a man is robbed later, that has nothing to do with the one who gave away the money. Such things just happen to those who carry around silver.
They stand and watch with horrid fascination. No one will come to help. The bystander effect in full strength. If there would be murder here, they would all be complicit in the sin. These are my Filipinos, they have not yet the idea of collective social responsibility.
“No tricks. No traps. You are going to lose your job anyway, so take this money and get out of my sight. Get out of my town. You are exiled, Bentong, and after I speak to the alferez should the Guardia Civil see your face in town again they will not merely beat you half to death. Whatever else you do, I do not care, as long as you do it elsewhere. May your pockets always find silver, but San Diego is forbidden to you.”
And how so suddenly he relaxes! A gift he is so suspicious of, but a punishment, now that fits his world-view! It is expected, and he can live with this.
This is a man without dreams.
“Thank you! Thank you Señor! Thank you for your mercy!” He swiftly grabs at the pouch and runs.
The sun is getting higher in the sky. I raise my face and close my eyes, and the warmth of the sun feels to me as if it is melting away my face as a wax mask, an oddly comfortable sensation. Rizal, tell me, which is my true self? The kind Ibarra that forgives even this indignity to his father’s memory? Or the hot-headed Ibarra that would pull a knife at an insult by Padre Damaso?
The task before me is huge and daunting, but I can feel it – it is the little things would destroy me. Father, forgive me for this cruelty, but we have all only just begun to be tested. Ah, if this cup could but pass me by…
“Señor Ibarra…” Old Doroy hesitates to ask. Even without looking I can feel it, he is furtive and uncertain. Was this not too public? A reputation of being an arrogant, vicious young man with a propensity for literally throwing money away could not be any good.
“My father is dead. I am the Don Ibarra now.”
He pauses, and then sighs. “… as you say, Don Ibarra.” In proper Spanish, Don is to be used only with the first name, or in full, never the last. With surnames is the Italian style.
An arrogant vicious young man exactly described Don Saturnino Ibarra, and the people all lived with him just fine. “I… no longer have any objection.”