As in nature, as in art, so in grace; it is rough treatment that gives souls, as well as stones, their luster.
But let us not yet speak of Maria Clara. Let us turn back a few days. On the dawn of day of the dead, I prayed:
Father, I can only hope that what I am doing does not disappoint you. Watch over me in heaven, father, and be not ashamed. Your bones lie in the lake, your tomb is nature itself. You died alone and suffering, but now you are free.
You no longer need to deal with these sanctimonious assholes.
Dealing with the Alferez is easy enough. A man so quickly enraged with slights to his honor, and despises uppity Filipinos, flattery works with him well enough. “It was your complete victory against Padre Salvi, sir, and the humiliation of having been fooled by a thief for so long will not be forgotten so easily.”
“Well said! I had my doubts about your… analysis… but this has worked out very well. It is not as if the cura restrains himself from condemning myself and my men as mindless thugs and murderers. But culling the herd now and then helps keep the natives nice and peaceful, already the tongues are wagging to their children that drinking and gambling would lead to such a sorry end. We have done a public service!
And that Don Anastasio cannot even say anything, for he was there to see it! You have done well with me, Don Crisostomo, and I will not forget this. But do not think I will allow lend my men to you again for any small reason.”
“Oh of course not, Señor Espina. Let us work together again if there is something sufficiently interesting. Most crimes and accusations are insipidly straightforward, really, and manhunts only tedious.” I pause to smile. “But I am reminded of something else-“
“Would you honor me by accepting a small token of my esteem? Some of my baggage from abroad had just arrived. Upon sight of it in Europe, I was quickly reminded of my father and bought it, but now he has no use for it. I would much rather you have it than anyone else. It seems… fitting.” I asked him again to lend me his men merely to carry baggage, a small thing, for it was to his benefit anyway.
They unpack before him a crate, which reveals a chair made of plush velvet and its frame plated gold. Its armrests end in carved lion faces, the symbol of Spain. A footstool of similar make is included. Also within the crate are bolts of purple velvet and silk.
“Señor Espina, have you ever heard of the concept of the ‘man cave’?”
Dealing with Padre Salvi was more infuriating. With his gaunt features, chalky pallor, and dark hollowed eyes he looked more frail and unthreatening than anything. Yet, in many ways, I would have an easier time trying to change the mind of a brick wall.
“Come now, Padre Salvi. I am not asking for much. I understand you are exhausted with All Soul’s Day, specially with how your chief sacristan has up and abandoned you. I completely understand if you do not want Pedro to be buried here at all, that is fine. That is completely fine. But even a criminal is owed a Christian burial, if instead somewhere else.”
“Thieves who steal from the church are damned in this world and in the next. The offerings given to the Mother Church are made holy, those who steal from them are nothing less than heretics! He is cast out, and no amount of your money will sway this good judgment!”
“It was your sacristan that has been stealing, Padre Salvi.”
“That indolent was surely an accomplice. Theirs is a family of thieves, like father like sons!”
“The boys are innocent. It was your sacristan. You know this.”
“The boys only escape punishment due to the intervention of more worthy others. I am not to be swayed by mere youth, there is evil even in young souls. They are much more easily tempted.”
Padre Salvi sees himself as above most the concerns of the mundane. Yes, even his lust for Maria Clara, no matter how hypocritical it seemed. Though he does not resort to violence as much as Padre Damaso, he does not forgive even half as easily.
After all, without temptation, there can be no saints. The priesthood in the Philippines had long solved the moral quandary of betraying their vows of chastity and poverty. All that is offered to the church becomes holy. I could perhaps trace his collapse to Crispin’s death – if he could murder a child and get away with it, what more could he do?
Without that trigger, he sees himself still completely righteous and should resist the sweet words of a worldly devil. He has just been betrayed by someone he had thought completely his ally, one trusted by Padre Damaso his predecessor, and the blood of the native truly showed itself as a corrupting influence.
I sigh. [Googol], spirit of knowledge, how do I convince Padre Salvi to lift his injunction upon Pedro’s corpse?
Superimposed upon my vision, a hallucinatory info box –
Thank you, [Googol]. Thanks for nothing.
I am reminded again how sometimes the witness of all human knowledge could be so astoundingly useless. I guess that is the meaning of having nearly infinite INT and absolutely zero WIS. Perhaps also that was the meaning of why mankind was given the gift of free will; something that not even the angels that sat at the foot of God been graced.
(Which by the way is odd to me, because then how could the angels Fall? Free Will thus is far more than just the capacity to disobey.)
“Padre Salvi, please. I am being polite and respectful of your authority here, that I do not simply have his body buried in the woods somewhere. I can pay all the relevant fees for the burial. Please, Padre Salvi. I cannot keep Pedro’s corpse pickled in a wine barrel at my house for much longer! That is simply bizarre.”
“I would question more why you would think it appropriate to do so in the first place, Don Crisostomo.”
“We have no morgue or morticians! We have no ice house. I had to do something.”
“Why is that? I question more why you feel responsible for the death of a thief. It is suspicious to me. Like that of a guilty conscience?”
“Padre Salvi, I am but two days returned from Europe. I have no way of having planned for anything like this to happen. This is charity. Yes. That is definitely it. Charity.
Power for its own sake is pointless, wealth left unused might as well not be there. The Good Book says that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to reach heaven, but I am still young, and if the rewards of my good works are to be claimed in this life than that is enough for now.”
He bulges one of his eyes in a suspicious leer. Padre Salvi is the one who actually looks like a ghoul. So why did the people of this town now shrink from me as Victor Von Frankenstein?
Don Anastasio did not laugh at my face when I first raised that complaint earlier this morning.
So now I say to him after reporting my (expected) failure “I am surprised, with your prestigious library, that you do not have the works of Mary Shelley. Frankenstein was written at the turn of this century, surely you have heard of it?”
He gestures to the shelves behind him. “As you can see, I have many treatises and personal accounts, but I rarely have time for frivolous novelas. I am a seeker of knowledge.”
“I see. I must disagree, however, for it is novelas – in fiction – that sometimes we can often see an exploration of the themes that make us human. As much as many novelas as indeed so much frivolous nonsense, a few more become classics by illuminating to the present and for future readers the pains and stirrings of their society. Cervantes, for example, is he not a novelist we both esteem?”
“I do not spurn novelists as such, Don Crisostomo, but even with Cervantes it is better to see first which novelas stand the test of time.”
“Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, was first written in 1818 and well-loved even today. If it is a work of horror, it is a creeping horror of our own mortality and prejudices. So I heartily recommend it you. I have a copy among my belongings.”
“If you say so, then I will certainly read it.”
“May I also store-“
“Don Crisostomo, you should know I do not care overmuch for the state of the body after death. I have lost even the bones of my wife to the inattentiveness of the town gravekeeper. But the man’s widow and her children now live here, and even I think it would be vile to inflict upon them such a gross reminder of their misfortune!” Though his face is sympathetic, his voice is firm. I cannot presume much more on his kindness. “You have chosen this. Keep it at your house.”
I press my fists to my forehead and groan. “It sure sounded like a clever solution at the time.” It was good enough for Admiral Horatio Nelson, after all! Wounded fatally at the Battle of Trafalgar by a stray musket bullet, his ship’s surgeon decided that rather than bury him at sea his body should be picked in brandy and brought home for a state funeral.
The old man now laughs. “Why are you hesitating now? Do as you would wish, be daring, as is the power of the youth.”
“No, now that people know of it, I cannot pull ‘The Mystery of the Disappearing Corpse in a Barrel’ else some might think Pedro would have risen as a zombie. No, he needs to be good and buried publicly, for I do feel partly responsible for setting this all in motion. I do not tarry with the occult.”
“A word used by the shamans in Haiti, the living dead.”
“And yet you say you do not tarry with the occult?”
I sigh heavily. “It does not exist. No one can bring life back into the dead, nor even the illusion of life. What is gone is gone, it is up for those left behind to carry on with the unfinished business they left behind.”
Old Tasio stared carefully at me. “In truth, Don Crisostomo, you puzzle me. You are clearly a clever young man, I can see that, but I believe it is most unwise to get yourself tangled in matters of politics and religion. Yet your eyes are clear, you are not hunting for a purpose or indulgent in life’s pleasures as so many of our youth. You have more in mind than just this matter of a family’s unjust fate. What are you truly after?”
“Is it really so hard to believe that I had heard of a possible tragedy and since I was in a position to try and mitigate the damage, I simply tried to help?” I pointed to my face. “What has changed? Is this really the face of a dishonest man? I have not lied or manipulated anyone since I have -”
I struck me with the force of a thunderbolt. I winced at the stabbing pain in my heart. Of all people, I tried to manipulate Maria Clara. No, of all the people in the world! Never her. I should not have done this. Googol, tell me, is fate rebounding against the vow I had sworn to the heavens?
“I have not come into this county with any ill intent. Don Anastasio… I am a mirror. I only give people what they want to see in themselves. It is not hard to find common interests, but sometimes people seem more intent in being divisive, in finding faults in others, just to feel superior in their differences. If you are aloof with me, I will be aloof with you, if you greet me as a friend, and then that is what I will be – and most honest of all I will be against my enemies.”
“Then what about your friends? Your family?”
“I will be among them myself, who only wants to see them all safe and happy.”
“Many have sought to only make sure of such an honest and upright deed, do take care that you do not lose them in the pursuit of power.”
My eyes are drawn to the dark, nearly bloody red liquid in my wine glass, then then towards the east, past the Pacific, and into America. I shiver at the murky vision of wide Cheshire grin.
“Don Anastasio, I already have power, of a sort, the extent of which will be made clear in the next few days. I only fear that without someone to temper my eagerness, like yesterday I will do much more unintentional damage.”
Maria Clara! You might not know it, but I have ill-treated you, and I am sorry.
The old man jerked back in surprise. “What? What is it, Don Crisostomo?”
“I beg you. I need advice.” I took a deep breath and clenched my fists. “I need love advice.”
I am not like my father, who ignored mass as inconsequential. I might not believe in purgatory, nor that exhorting dead saints to pray for my father’s soul would have greater spiritual force under the eye of god, but sitting there in the front pews staring Padre Salvi in the face discomfited the young priest.
It was petty revenge, since within my skull I could be capable of infinite patience and in split attentions write out and prepare in timeless labor the work which would shake the country. It was a stormy night while he said his mass, and the tolling of the bells irregular, and more did Padre Salvi understand the spiteful mistake caused by his tiredness. Even so his homily was about ungratefulness.
Afterwards, close to midnight I found the spot where my father’s bones were cast into the waters. It was during this time that the stars are defeated by the shining of so many candles. Graveyards become starfields of regret.
But my father now rests in a place with a greater vigil light, every night. I set afloat a handmade wooden boat upon which I placed flowers and a lit candle. It is in the deep of night, the skies had already cleared. The moon has risen high above the waters.
“Father, I am not a righteous person…” I confess to the waters. “I hope you will not be too disappointed in me. My power is unearned, my means are completely unfair. My whole existence is that of a cheat, there is no justice in me.
As a greater man than I once said: Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. I greatly fear that I am not strong enough for this test.
Father, they say this is the day when the gap between the living and the dead are the weakest, so if you can hear me, please – give me a sign. I am afraid that what I will do is worse than wasted effort, but put Maria Clara in danger. All is pointless if she comes to harm. I know you have loved my mother greatly, so please, if you can, help me in this.
Give me a sign, if you can. The Angel of the Lord is with me, but of all the angels it is a bit thoughtless. I have another ally in the distance, but that one is almost more trouble than it is worth. I have cheats, I have mysterious abilities, but none of these things address how I am not in any way smarter than you and my mother have made me.
I ask for your blessing one last time, father. If at all possible, could someone else take up this abnormal duty? You are with God now, let me know, if there is at all someone who could do this instead, someone who would not cack it up!”
There is only the gentle stirrings of the guileless waters. Laguna de Bay makes no reply.
“I am going to cack this all up, someone do something. Take this away from me before everything goes careening out of control.”
Nothing but the breeze and the distant call of cicadas.
“THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE!” I shout at the lake and at the moon. “I am not half as smart as I pretend! The burden of so many lives… I have not done anything yet, but already it threatens to crush me! I am not the one you-“
The sound erupts in my skull and casts me down into the ground. My black tailored clothes become all soaked with mud and grime as I lie there wracked with blinding pain.
YOU ARE CHOSEN
Vos mos sumo aliis
YOU WILL CHOOSE OTHERS
Quod licet omnes vos estis
YOU ARE ALL THAT IS ALLOWED
Ne tenebrae ruinam!
LEST DARKNESS FALL!
I have returned home to sleep. All is dark and silent.
“Oh shut the hell up, Pedro. Nobody wants you,” I tiredly mutter as I throw off my formal clothes, nearly mindlessly dressing myself in a rougher but warmer camisa, and shuffling off to bed I go. I ignore the insulted look as my clothes passed through his face.
And so endeth the day of the dead.