“Love is like the truth, sometimes it prevails, and sometimes it hurts.”—Victor M. Garcia Jr.
So, we are all caught up. Today is the day Maria Clara arrives. I am standing in front of a full-length mirror, slapping my face.
“All right, Crisostomo, you can do this. Relax. Relax. Smile.”
Oh hypothetical population of the hundred years hence, from whom I derive this future knowledge, how do you motivate yourself? You might recognize what I am doing very similar to training my Charisma as if I am a figure in the videogame The Sims.
Which is fair, I feel that way sometimes, as if this body of mine is but a shell driven by some ineffable purpose. When I imagine there is some green diamond gently spinning over my head, boredom ceases to be an issue.
“Fewer teeth when you smile, Crisostomo.“
Speaking to crowds? Easy. When it is not me doing it, but the constructed persona that they expect, the emotional energy I must spend is lessened. But Maria Clara requires much more than that, to her I bare my soul. The thought of saying the wrong thing to her terrifies me.
I am afraid that what you had done to me has made me much less of a genuine person as she deserves. Am I even a person anymore?
“Existential crisis later, Crisostomo. We must not be late.”
All right. Okay. Deep breath.
We go. To Maria Clara’s house!
Many visitors and well-wishers have already come to Capitan Tiago’s house, and as black coach stops by his door they quickly make themselves scarce. None of them are there for any business that is worth at least three thousand five hundred pesos.
Or to put it in the modern parlance: “Money talks. Bullshit walks.”
Capitan Tiago receives me warmly, but the joy does not reach his eyes. I assume that Padre Damaso had warned him against showing me too much favor lest he loses the favor of his own patron and protector. That closeness with the Church could so swiftly turn from armor into a dagger aimed at his exposed chest.
“People have been telling me to offer you advice about your philanthropy, Crisostomo!” he says to me with a tight smile. “Are you truly trying to follow in my footsteps?”
The rivalry with Doña Patrocino was annoying enough, but he cannot hope to outlive a young upstart. Even if I were to run out of money sooner or later, it would lessen the money available for his own pleasures if he must make more impressive gestures to outdo two annoying contenders one after the other.
“If I make a habit for paying half out of every fiesta, people will not find pride in what they do,” I wryly reply. “Oh, it would be grand to follow in your virtuous footsteps, Capitan Tiago, but alas I cannot afford it.”
“Good. Devotions to God is always a good way to spend your wealth, but giving to the pleasure of the people is the best way to waste it. They are shiftless, and greedy, and soon enough you will find that they expect things from you as if you owe it to them! They will curse you, they will slander you, they will make pretense that their lack of money makes them superior to you in virtue. Never obligate the happiness of others to your own, Crisostomo! Never trust the rabble, they are without loyalty – make happy God, or the people that matter.”
“As you say. As I cannot match your footsteps, then at least that much can be reserved to ensuring Maria Clara’s comforts.”
“Young Ibarra, you are a friend to whom I show much favor, but do not speak as if I had already decided to give my daughter’s hand to you!”
I cough into my fist. “Forgive me, Capitan, I do not mean to be so presumptuous. I only mean to say, that I will do anything to show that I am worthy of your trust. Nothing in the world matters to me as much as Maria Clara’s smile. You may trust that everything I can will be turned to protect Maria Clara’s happiness and well-being. To anyone in the world that would cause her any sorrow, I will not show any mercy.”
He sighs and rubs at his bald head in exasperation. “There are other, less savory rumors about you, young Ibarra.”
I smile at him beatifically. “I am quite sure I do not know what you are talking about. Capitan Tiago, by your leave, may I please speak with Maria Clara?”
He lets out an annoyed grunt and dismisses me with a wave of his hand. “The only reason you are allowed to converse without a chaperone is that being unable to speak with discretion would make Maria Clara unhappy. I give you half an hour, no more.”
“You are most gracious, Capitan. I thank you.”
It has been five days since we had last seen each other, and it was like an eternity. As our eyes meet, it is as if power surges through my spine. It is said that the only people who can change the world are those not afraid to try; but no man can change the world if he cannot be brave enough to risk it all for love.
“Maria Clara…” You are my weakness and my strength, my dearest! Only speak to me, and for you nothing is impossible.
“Crisostomo…” she murmurs in wonder, as if trying to remind herself that what is before her is not a dream.
“Maria Clara…!” The only reality is the one in which you exist! I refuse all others!
“Crisostomo…” She shyly looks away, perhaps discomfited by the sheer happiness in my eyes; as if seeing a man lost in the desert, guzzling at an offered waterskin.
Capitan Tiago walks back into the room. “You two, get out of my sala. Go over there, by the balcony! I do not want to hear any more foolishness from you.”
We blush and hurry away to obey.
We sit by a window overlooking the placid waters of the lake. We speak sweet nothings to each other, our voices muffled by the cool December breeze.
But one thing you must also understand, romantic and sweet and gentle as it may appear on the outside, we are twenty-somethings with zero experience at romance. Oh, the movies you try to show in the brain, even Rizal’s own words; softer than the murmur of leaves and more fragrant than the aromas wafting from the garden; none of them quite conveys the fumbling awkwardness we try to hide from each other.
“You are the loveliest flower in all the country, Maria Clara. It should be me that should fear someone more worthy catches your eye. What sweet words a parade of suitors must whisper in your ears!”
“Don Crisostomo, I am insulted that you would think that of me! I am but a poor maid, I have no experience in such things, until recently my home has been the convento. The ways of high society are foreign to me. The ways of men are unknown to me, and I do not know what words to say in return… other than ‘thank you’.” She hides her face behind her fan. “In truth I have always been unsure about being praised for my beauty, it is not something I ever deserved.”
“Better than by having it, you feel that you deserve everything else just as effortlessly.” I try to keep my lip from curling up. “Entitlement. One of the worst delusions for a human to have.”
A low “Mmmm…” passes through her lips. “Entitlement, you say…”
I look up to see that her wide eyes are thinned with calculation. Like a metal shutter had slammed down between us.
And so it goes, as we have already seen in this tale –
“Crisostomo, have you been cruel? They say you beat an old gravekeeper near to death, and that you had sent the Guardia Civil to shoot a man dead.”
I let out a low groan and rub at my forehead. “Allow me first to tell you my side of the story-“
Imagine a puppy happily skipping by, chasing a butterfly.
And then suddenly a truck comes speeding by.
The puppy chases after the butterfly onto a road.
And the truck-
Goes speeding by, because there is an overpass.
Working for Your Future, Today.
Sadly, it remains too late for me to become The Gravel Guardian, the President of Pavements, Supreme Commander of Roads and Commerce, the Great Concrete King! We may have missed a navigational cue somewhere.
Wait, what were we up to again?
“And so that happened.” I have finished recounting my side of the events over the past few days.
Maria Clara raises her palms as if she wishes to lay her face upon them, then claps them together instead as if in prayer.
“Maria Clara?” I venture to ask.
“Crisostomo…” She looks up, and her eyes are shining pools of mystery, pulling in all things as if by swallowing them they could be comprehended. “Crisostomo, do you even hear yourself?”
“Do I hear? Uhmm… aaaaahhh…” I vocalize, “Yes?”
She takes a deep breath and lightly rests her nose on the tip of her fingers. She closes her eyes and whispers a short prayer for patience. Then she sighs out softly “Crisostomo, you have changed so much, I almost cannot recognize you anymore.”
Ah! Why? That hurts me, you know?!
The silence, which had long been companionable, has suddenly become awkward. “I apologize, forgive me, Crisostomo, you do not deserve that… I have no right to rebuke you so.”
“Maria Clara, you have the perfect right. More than anyone else in this world, more than the priests and even the Pope in Rome, there are no words I would welcome.” I lick my lips nervously.
“No, it is not my place to criticize you. You have your reasons.”
“That-! That is one thing from you I never do wish to hear. To hear you speak as if there is anyone your better; to say that is to acknowledge that there are people to the lesser. That your worth as a woman is innately less than any man, no, I refuse that.” I shake my head. “Your father might believe that, but do you?”
“I have always felt that we ought to be judged only under the eyes of God. I do not wish to quarrel with you, Crisostomo.”
“Never from me, Maria Clara. Always I would want to hear what you have to say.”
She looks away. “… in the convent, they told me, that the opinion of wives are welcomed at first, then soon enough she is called a noisy nagging woman…” She blinks. “Why are you smiling?”
I could not help it. “Eheheheee.”
Her eyes widen, belatedly coming to realize what she has said, and hunkers behind her fan as if it were a shield.
“Now, now, as happy as I am to finally know your true thoughts-“
Maria Clara snaps her fan shut. Her face is revealed to me, glorious in its blush half-embarrassment-half-anger, and begins hitting my shoulder with its ivory monture. “You-you-you…!” she puffs out.
“Ahaha-haha-peace, Maria Clara! Mercy!”
“Youuu…!” She draws back and huffs. She is doubly embarrassed now, for a Filipina maiden must be chaste and demure. “You- you have not won yet, Crisostomo.”
I can only smile and lean back with a hand on my chin. “Just being able to see you like this is victory enough, Maria Clara.” I am dancing inside. Half of you in my brain is saying that a lady is not something to be won, but the other half is saying bollocks to that, treat your girl like she’s a princess.
After some time, her gaze sharpens again.
“Crisostomo…” she whispers. “I do not know the truth of your mind.”
I nod. Somewhere across town a dog is running around and howling from the noise of invisible panic alarms. Where can I even begin to explain? The aggregate knowledge of humanity is useless white noise from all the conflicting advice. Maria Clara still has full faith in the religious institutions of our country. The confessional is no place for privacy, anything she says to a priest can and will be used against me and my purposes.
But the mere notion that I cannot trust Maria Clara galls me. I refuse that world too.
“Maria Clara… the truth is-”
I take a deep breath to stiffen my resolve.
I spread my legs open and slap my palms over my knees, as if ready to genuflect. Shoulders straight, a beatific smile like that of the Buddha on my face. Maria Clara hides her face again and pointedly turns away. She fans herself fitfully.
“.. There are certain things I cannot tell you, not yet, because it would ruin the surprise. I cannot tell you what I am going to do, but there is always a reason why, no matter how insane it may sound…”
Even though ‘It sounded like a good idea at the time’ does not in any way mitigate whatever insanity of the idea. My smile momentarily goes stiff. ‘Because I heard it on the Internet is a reason’, a stupid reason, but still a reason.
“Tell me, Crisostomo, for even I find your decision to be foolish. You make yourself a target, this is not the way to make friends – without humility, you make only rivals and sycophants. I do not understand if you are cruel or kind. I can understand what you have done to the old gravekeeper, for they tell me sometimes a man must rise to a great rage when insulted, but did you have to drive him out of town?” Her eyes flick back, and away. “If you do not do these things idly, then why?”
I smile, and I begin to speak.
Less than fifteen minutes left, so let us be quick.
Yes, I was angry, but that was but a small part of the trick. I believe that all should be held accountable for their actions. A blow was struck as a reminder that even if the dead do not care, the living do. Impunity from bottom-up is as bad as top-down.
Yes, I did forbid him to return – but I did also give him the means to start anew elsewhere. He might feel that he has nothing to his name, no skills that would serve as a trade, but if he stayed here with the dead – nothing would change. Among the graves a living dead. Sometimes one must cut chains in one’s mind to break through into tomorrow.
Regarding the fiesta, it is my belief that the money spent on religious festivals are not exactly wasted. Yes, much of it goes up in smoke or consumed in the feasting or thrown away in the decorations, but the flow of currency still meant that workers had money. We support farmers, we support craftsmen.
And that is another thing: a festival is a civic exercise. It do not want things to be like the big cities in America or Europe, where though separated only by a thin wall, families were complete strangers to each other. It is a small start, but if we can get more families to come to know each other, to visit each other, what we lose in expenses we gain back in morale and the feeling of togetherness.
It is not merely enough that the rich spend – ha! It is to be ridiculed, a failure of imagination! No, a grand fiesta demands that they go a bit further and participate. They must interact with the townsfolk. Some of them might even go further and risk humiliating themselves. There is a saying that familiarity breeds contempt. But when we start talking about how the town aristocracy meaningfully interacts with the town citizenry, we are looking at how people can be governed.
Civic activities, with no monetary reward at the end of it but a good meal, is the spirit of the bayanihan.
This festival is but the primer, a test case to see how well people might take my intrusion into their affairs. If they go all-out here, the thought comes – how could we better could we do any better next year, what if we had more time?
I cannot not tell her directly, only hint at it, but by this time next year I will have radio. It will be 1888, vaudeville is barely a thing yet, and no one knows of the procedures of the noontime variety show.
Yes, being so free with money would make me a target of ne’er do wells, but I will not provide loans. I can provide work. (At some point I am sure that some visitors will make me want to punch faces, but people being too afraid to ask for favors is counter-productive.) Loans require collateral and feelings of resentment, but an employer is responsible for the wellbeing of his employees. There are a lot of public works I could also see accomplished.
Ah, Maria Clara! Sanitation! Prayer cleanses the soul, but cleanliness saves lives! Our mothers… their deaths, their preventable deaths from cholera! I am infuriated now from what I had learned in Germany. Infection and foul waters… not spirits, not weakness, no fault of their own. Clean water to every home, a sewer system to lead the filth straight out of town instead of outhouses that contaminate the water table!
I begin to slap at my legs. Oh my God, all the saints, why, if anyone were to actually stand in my way for this, I ask for her forgiveness in advance, I am willing to get bloody about this. One does not need to be a doctor to save lives.
Maria Clara has lowered her fan and stares at me intently.
“I apologize for bringing up bad memories, but this is one thing I cannot let stand anymore.”
“I understand now that you are being charitable, but Crisostomo… I fear for you. Even good works can exhaust your wealth.” You are not as wealthy as my father, she implies. I pray you do not follow completely in his footsteps.
“Maria Clara, I have a dream.” I look off into the distance. “It is an achievable dream. I dream that someday, every child at least in our town will be able to read and write. I dream that someday, a family might be able to afford cheese every day, bacon once a week, and pick up cans of condensed milk at a corner store. I dream of my ice ships, sailing from town to town selling ice so that people can more affordably buy meat and fish. I dream of quality goods at the lowest possible prices.”
I explain and faster, as time runs short. “I dream of every worker being able to collect a pension when they are too old, and every person over the age of sixty should receive ten percent discount when buying anything from an Ibarra store. I dream of women working in factories, but not being fired when they get pregnant, but instead being allowed six months of half-pay even when not working.
I dream of the day our town is a host to foreign tourism, when our festivals instead of being considered a money drain becomes a source of revenue. I dream of my submarine, and the wonders I could show hiding just underneath the waves.
In ten years, all possible.
But words are just words, we should all be judged by our actions. I am not exactly a wealthy man. This is where they all misunderstand. What I have is a unique and transformative access to a variety of resources. Wealth – money – is but what society has decided to be the means of transfer.
Capital is nothing without labor. Which generates more capital. Unless the workers seize the means of production but that is a complex issue we will not get into right now. If I do seem in a hurry for this week it is because the Governor-General himself will be coming to the fiesta, if my guess is right about Capitan Tiago inviting him – and if it is not right, then I will be disappointed in your father’s level of influence and will have to take measures of my own to assist – and I like Governor-General Terrero.
He is a decent sort. Unfortunately, his term will not likely be renewed next year. So whatever I have to say to him, what arguments for policy I can make, the hopes that his successor will not overturn, it must be now. In the festival, I have made preparations – there I will to you and all reveal the fullest extent of my plan. It is a surprise. It aches, Maria Clara, but I cannot – must not – say anything until then. Not even to you.”
Though my diatribe Maria Clara had gone from looking away from me with her face hidden by her fan, to her fan lowering from her face, next held to midchest, and then finally on her lap. She now sits squarely facing me, her knees locked together. She no longer meets my eyes, but has her head tilted down staring at the floor. Her teasing air had faded to this aura of melancholy.
Maria Clara, what is happening?! Only say it, and I will do anything to fix it! Why are you sad? Am I making you sad? What? How? I am sorry. Please. Just communicate with me.
“Crisostomo, I understand. You are in a hurry. I should not be bothering you at a time like this.”
“You will never be a bother. There is the work that I have to do, and then there is that which gives meaning to it all, which is you.”
Not even the slightest twitch of a smile in her face. Whyyy…
“When you had come here, I had been braving to ask you to help with a simple little scheme… it has been too long since you had come home, and most of my time is spent in the convent, we are both strangers again to this town. So with our friends, I had hoped to get to know you again.”
“Some sort of excursion on the lake? We can still do that! Maria Clara, I had been extremely looking forward to that!”
“Crisostomo, that you would guess my father’s intent is explicable. How even would you know what I was going to ask?”
“You have a grand dream, Crisostomo. Perhaps it is too grand for a simple person like myself. It would be unfair of me to distract you from what needs to be done. I… I am overwhelmed right now. I am not like you, Crisostomo…”
“Maria Clara, please! Never at any point believe that I consider you inferior by any means! I cannot say this now… but no man on Earth can possibly NEED you as much as I do.” I get down on my knees and try to catch her eye. “Maria Clara, please do not be sad. Do not get discouraged. For everything… I need you.”
She stands up and moves to place the chair between us. She leans upon it as if exhausted. “Crisostomo, I also ask, please. I need time to think. Please do not be too angry with me. If you love me, come back to me in a few days. Make the arrangements for the excursion if you wish… but for now, please leave.”
I suck in my breath. “… a… as you wish.”
I guess there’s nothing for it now.
I must go drown myself in the lake.