– Ben Sweetland
What is the sound of progress?
It is not a roar, nor a march, nor the bang-clank of metal on metal. It is a heartfelt sigh, a warm caress – it is the sound of steam. To be more precise, a somewhat *whiss-click* sound.
Within the square space in the middle of my stone home, is now emplaced a small Corliss steam engine. It is only about as long as an adult man is tall, its cylinder is oriented horizontally rather than vertically. Its flywheel spins hypnotically, as the piston moves back and forth with only a gentle hiss. Those two spinning balls of the centrifugal governor dance almost joyfully.
I must say, I am greatly surprised by how quiet this is. I have seen steam engines before, in my studies here and in Europe, but large ones meant to drive mills, and somehow the idea of a personal scale steam engine had escaped me. It is so quiet, so very quiet that I may allow it to run all night and still manage to sleep comfortably. It is also incredibly clean, the fires used to heat the water in the boiler less noxious than the exhaust fumes from a carburetor.
The boiler for the engine is a simple copper casket nearby. The amusing thing about this is that since we are burning things to heat up the water anyway, we have decided to use the ambient heat for other things. Someone has placed strips of squid to dry on a rack on top of the boiler.
I could understand why steam failed for mass transport such as cars, since rather than keep oil and water for motive power, just burn gasoline in one go. Even if we equalize thermal efficiency, less weight to carry means a smaller, more agile automobile.
Yet I must ask, people of the future, why did you stop using steam engines for home power? True, a gasoline or diesel generator is much more compact, but this steam engine of mine… behold its stately elegance! It is multi-fuel; coal, charcoal, eventually someone is going to figure out liquefied petroleum gas. It matters not how the fires are fed, only that it is lit. You will not have that annoying *chug-chug-chug* clatter that accompanies even the smallest ‘silent-type’ generator. A steam engine’s operating cycle is much gentler, which means longer span before it breaks down. I know that there remain working steam engines a century old in your time. Steam continues to drive your civilization, for what else do you burn coal and oil and harness the heat of the atom but to drive steam turbines?
Perhaps your children would remain more interested in engineering, in remaining in their country to fix it, if they continued to see such examples of genteel potency instead of rude efficiency? That world I glimpsed moves lightning-fast, a society that considers its appliances as more akin to magic boxes, if it is broken or outdated; throw it out, replace it! Steam exemplifies living for the long haul. Respect where you came from, lest you lose sight of why you strive so!
Ah, well. I do recognize that this a technology that works better the larger it is. The age of the internal combustion engine is a well-deserved supremacy. Ironic that battery-powered cars have actually been invented first in this era, which Ford and Edison even attempted to make mass-producible, but it is you who get to enjoy it. Ah, I criticize you because I envy you.
The flywheel spins, connected to a dynamo, producing approximately 40 volts in DC power, stepped down to 13 volts for my batteries and the pump for the nearby ice maker. I am producing one and half kilowatts of power, much more than I require.
The servants are still discomfited by the couple of electric lamps I have installed. Carbon-filament bulbs, for though Edison knew that eventually tungsten would be a better material, the technology for making such fine wires would only be breached by the Hungarian company Tungsram in 1904. In this era almost everyone is off to sleep by eight o’clock. With such unnaturally bright lights, a person might continue to write letters or extend leisure time well into midnight, as is normal in the world a hundred years from now. How much you take for granted this boon to productivity! These little dregs of power are less than a fraction of a fraction as that energy you expect to be available as your right, but in these times the greater energy will be found in blood and soil!
They might call me mad. Mad with power? No! Mad from lack of power!
But no more!
Wait. That… does not sound right.
I lower my hands and turn to see Basilio standing beside me. His arms are on his hips, his head thrown back in triumphant laughter. He stops to return my quizzical gaze.
“… why are you laughing?” I ask.
“You looked like you were having such fun, señor. I just wanted to try it out.”
Hmm. Yes. Basilio is another that continues to surprise me. He retains the sort of earnestness and strong sense of ethics that would aid his studies, but also acquired a strange form of serene acceptance for whatever comes his way. If we are to talk about sensibility, Crispin is a much more sensible child. He is fearful, he is hesitant, he is somewhat greedy, but these are all normal feelings.
I have no idea why Basilio has become so fearless and impudent. Any other boss might be irked by this, but he knows I mind it not. Even so it is not sensible to feel so secure given our disparity in age and social class. The Philippines is less of a racist society than a classist one.
Without future tragedies to shape his character, I wonder of his strength in the days to come. He would not meet now the kindly Tandang Selo, who should have nursed him back to health after being injured fleeing from the Guardia Civil for being accused of stealing. His disappearance would have led Sisa to think both her sons were dead and drive her mad; the next time mother and son would meet would be for her to die in his arms.
While that is something that is well avoided, now he would not also so naturally meet Juli, this Juliana de Dios, Old Man Selo’s grand-daughter and his future sweetheart.
“Don Crisostomo, you are doing that thing again.”
“The one where you think you are using the inside voice but doing the outside voice instead.”
What? Oh. Well. “… how long have you been listening?”
“Since ‘they call me mad, mad with power? No, mad from lack of power!’, Don Crisostomo.”
Well, shite. You are too dangerous to my sense of normalcy, Basilio. Get out.
The boy takes a deep breath. “No.”
After a short while, he adds “If not meeting Juli means not acting like you when in Maria Clara’s presence, it is fine for me not to meet a girl so soon.” He clacks his tongue. “Not very soon at all, I hope not to act so silly at any point.”
“Hah, you say that now, child, but soon enough you will find yourself looking back on these words and laughing at your own naiveté.”
“I will not,” he replies firmly.
I continue to smirk down at him. “Then yours will be a sadder future.”
“My mother and my brother… they are alive today. Two good lives in exchange for a useless one, that is a good trade. Thank you, Don Crisostomo. You have already given us a better future, that is why I do not fear your intentions.”
My smile turns upside-down. “You do know that I had nothing at all, none whatsoever, to do with that, yes?”
“I do not believe you,” is Basilio’s even-tempered reply.
Tch. “Fine.” I reach into my vest to take out my pocket watch. “You are back early, Basilio. Have you already fulfilled your mission?”
“Yes, señor. I have found him. As you said, as long as I have Doggol with me, I can find anyone. Anywhere. None shall escape.”
“You are only lucky that Elias is a good man, he would hardly harm a child.”
Basilio only shrugs.
And who is this Elias, you might ask, and why is it important to find him? In the novel that Dr. Jose Rizal wrote about my life, the man named Elias was my direct opposite: where I stood in trust of the regime, he saw only things to burn; as I rely on my riches, he walks homeless and in humility; where I trust in education to advance the hope of the nation, its children, he applies strength against the sinful and abusive.
And when, as Rizal had made prophecy of my life, I have forsaken all hope for the future and advocate only bloody revolution, it is Elias who would die in my place, mistakenly shot dead by the Guardia Civil as I would flee by swimming across the lake. A much worthier a man than I would become, jaded and vengeful in the passing of years; the jeweler Simoun, the agitator, the flatterer, the terrorist bomber.
Complementary opposites. As Moses needed Aaron, Holmes and Watson, as Superman and Batman exist in counterpoint, and as Paul McCarthy and John Lennon show that the cultural myth of the lone genius doesn’t stand up to the power duo, so did I need someone who can stand on my level yet with a dissimilar skill set to accomplish that which I could not; so that we would not need to take more drastic and more merciless actions.
In some ways I asked this silently of Maria Clara too, to have the gentleness and common sense I cannot spare.
Basilio was still much too young to serve as my spymaster and army chief of staff.
Basilio smiles wryly. “It is better than your first plan, señor. It is a good thing you asked Crispin, who then told teacher Navidad to talk you out of the foolish peril of your ploy.”
I wince. There was no guarantee that Elias would still be the boatman if we went on that boat excursion on the lake, and Maria Clara has decided to postpone that to after the fiesta anyway.
I did know that he was sweet on a girl in San Diego, a young lady named Salome who lives alone in a house at the banks of the lake.
My plan was to wait there. Alone. At night. At her house. For him to show up. You know, for confidentiality’s sake.
Navidad’s reaction was to say “With all respect, Don Crisostomo, do you want to DIE?!”
If not Elias (literally), then Maria Clara (figuratively) would kill me for creeping about in the vicinity of an unattended young lass late at night. Crispin very sensibly suggested that if all I wanted was to talk with Elias, then let him approach me instead. A Don should not be off running after people, it was improper (servants exist and are paid well for that, as his own recent experience showed).
“Has he agreed to meet me deep in the forest where my great-grandfather’s grave lies?”
I can feel enough of you as if saying ‘You should not be relying so much on children to point out your stupidity’. There is also a saying ‘mind of a genius, sensibility of a child!’ Those who maintain their sense of wonder shall find serendipity.Also, because of situations like this:
“Excuse me, what? You are asking me if I would like to buy your niece’s… children?”
Sendong, the caretaker of my father’s lands, nodded and explained. If I wanted more children to run around and serve, then it would be kind of me to bring those children into this home. They would work hard, he would make sure of it! It would not even cost me much, they will obey any order, he would rather they die than shame the family as useless mouths to feed.
Having many children is the only investment the poorest can make.
“I see. That… is certainly a thing.” I had forgotten that it was still a custom of these times for the poor to sometimes sell their children to their wealthier relatives or patrons for a sum. The children would then work as servants in their homes for a span of years. Technically indentured servitude, but even slaves had better protections. Remember, Crispin and Basilio are seven and ten, and are expected to work. If you do not work, you are not fed; if you cry, you are beaten.
For the Bible sayeth: Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.
Also: Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.
As much as having spoiled and entitled brats given all they ever wanted in life like little lordlings is a problem, I am askance at the idea that parents in this time period believe that they totally own their children, that children have no rights and protections of their own.
Unfortunately my first thought, which I barely manage to suppress from being spoken out loud, is ‘So, are there any orphans we could use?’
And my next thought: ‘With enough orphans, and Japanese contract workers from Davao, could we make a village of ninja in the mountains somewhere? Starting early is the best way to build loyalty.’
I am sitting behind my desk with my hands laced into a bridge under my noise. I stare intently, yet emptily at the old man. My mind races with the simulation –
‘Basilio, bring your brother.’ He must serve the vital function of Number 12 in the Evil Overlord List.
Then Crispin would sensibly ask ‘What is a ninja?’
After explaining, with awestruck eyes, he would say ‘Let’s do that then!’
And Basilio would just go ‘Eh.’
The old man is fidgeting in place. “Don Crisostomo, if this displeases you, I apologize, I apologize a hundred times!”
Mmm. Yet there is also a net positive here, because children who grow up in other people’s homes, even if they are considered menial servants, eventually become a part of that family’s patronage system. In this century, rich people considered themselves well off by how many people they supported. The peasantry feel safer when they are under the command of a powerful family. It is all so terribly feudal, and yet I know it will survive in some form into the next century.
Such as it is, there is power in a web of obligations. You help the ones who provide for you, and in return they help you in your times of trouble. In theory. Well, at least I would be able to provide proper nutrition, decent clothes, and schooling. In a single generation, families could rise from poverty.
Perhaps as a convenient happenstance, the foundation for a covert intelligence apparatus.
But on the other hand, do I really want to encourage such a backwards system?
[Googol] is being astoundingly unhelpful on the question of whether or not to buy children.
In the last month in the year of 1887, is the portrait of a young man as a mad scientist.
A mad social scientist.
Elias, get your ass over here. I need to fill out my brain trust!
It is now the mid-afternoon. Juliano Navidad is here, and we are performing one final rehearsal for tomorrow’s presentation. Old Tasio is here as well, because it his house is the only place where we may discuss things in relative security. The old autodidact rubbed at his grizzled chin as inspected at the strange assembly of lights, lenses and wires. Steam, he was familiar with that technology, but this had no moving parts.
“Electricity is such an interesting phenomenon,” he muses. He points to a tubular device leading to a box, another assembly of magnets and wires powered by its own battery bank. “And this other contraption, you say, is a voice amplifier?”
“If tele– or ‘at a distance’ and phone– ‘voice or sound’ means to speak at a distance, while I very much want to call this the macrophone or to ‘to speak with excessiveness’, unfortunately it has already been dubbed the microphone. The concept was first put into use by the German physicist Johann Philipp Reis, but it was David Edward Hughes in 1878 who invented a much more practical and refined version. He also coined the term ‘microphone’, saying that it acted as much as the microscope does for light as it magnifies minute sounds.”
He chuckles. “And such a petty thing as unclear terminology annoys you…?”
“Words are the only magic we humans can use. It is how we define the world, how we define ourselves. This is the memory of our species.”
“And this thing, where the sound comes out – what would you call this?”
“That is the loudspeaker.”
The old man shakes his head sadly. “Forgive me if I do not have much confidence in your naming sense.”
I turn around to see Navidad sitting with his face in his palms. He gives me a dark look through his fingers.
“Are you not nervous at all about tomorrow? About anything?! I realize it may be too late to say this, but your prediction did come true. The Governor-General has indeed arrived. Tomorrow, though I will be standing behind them, it is too great an occasion for one such as me. What if I make a mistake while switching plates? I would ruin your speech! I am but a humble schoolteacher, it is not my place to stand with such luminaries.”
“If you do not do it, Basilio will need to take over. His young fingers at the end of stubbier arms will not decrease the chances of fumbling.”
“I would just like to remind you one last time that I am supposed to be working for the government, not you.”
“Ehh, soon enough that will make no difference.”
“Don Crisostomo, I would like to remind you one more time to please do not make such comments in public.”
“In that case, perhaps I had best find an Aaron to my Moses.” I raise my finger and point to the outside. “To answer your question, teacher, I am not worried about tomorrow because to speak to the rich and powerful is trivial. Greed and self-importance create worlds onto themselves. This is not an evil thing, this is merely… marketing.”
“You certainly do live in a separate world from the rest of us…” he mutters in return.
“Should something happen to me, YOU will make this million-peso speech! It is not for idle reason I had you memorize it along with the timings.”
“Please, no!” The teacher cringes and crosses his arms over his face. I am not a vampire, that will not work on me.
I turn away from this silly sight and ask “Tell me, Don Anastasio, has Padre Damaso returned to San Diego?”
“Did something happen to him along the way?”
The old man purses his lips and scowls at me. “Rumor about town has that Padre Damaso was struck down on the way to San Diego. Even now he is confined to his bed. They speak of it as the work of that infamous outlaw, Elias.”
“Elias? That fellow! Is he not the one who threw the Alferez into a mudhole?” Navidad exclaimed.
“That sounds interesting. I would hear more of this story.”
“They say it was a very rainy day in September, and the Alferez met on a narrow muddy path a man carrying a heavy bundle of firewood on his back. There being only enough space in the road for one person, the Alferez ordered the man to make way. Yet, the man seemed to have little regard for going back nor to be swallowed by the mud by the roadside, on account of the heavy load on his back, and so he continued moving forward.
As he approached, the Alferez, incensed, tried to slash at him with his sword. But the man snatched a piece of firewood off his back and struck his pony on the head with such force that the poor beast fell, throwing away his rider on the mud. They also say that the man went on his way with tranquility, without taking notice of the five bullets sent at his back by the Alferez, there who was blinded by mud and rage. The Alferez had no knowledge of this man, but he supposed it was that famous Elias who came to the province several months ago. The Guardia Civil know him in several towns for much the same actions.”
“Is he a bandit, then?”
“It is not certain, for he is also said to have fought off several tulisanes while they were robbing a house, and did not stay to be rewarded.”
“Hmm. How brave of this Elias, how capable! And yet how slovenly.”
“In what way do you think this was shoddily done?” Old Tasio asks with a strange lilt to his voice.
“Well, for someone to attack such august personages of town, it seems like someone carries a grudge. Yet to deal someone a medium injury seems a bit… pointless. Their hearts shall surely seek revenge. I would prefer to do someone a minor injury that can be redressed, or something so severe it would be impossible to recover from.
“Hence the mystery here, if it is indeed the man Elias who had gone and battered around two or more Español, why did not just kill them? It makes no difference, they will seek his death for such an insult anyway.”
“Perhaps he is a man who knows mercy,” Don Anastasio enunciates carefully.
“Then I shall hope he shows me a little more mercy than that, when we speak this night.”
“Don Crisostomo, no!” Navidad wails.
“Don Crisostomo, yes!”
It is now the deep of night.
It is not midnight, however, no matter how thematically appropriate that may be. It is merely a time when most are already asleep, and those intent with pleasant skullduggery can move with ease in the shadows. It is about nine o’clock. A fugitive such a Elias would not own a timepiece, and once the sun has set time seems to fly on by.
It is peaceful here, literally the peace of a grave, and unlike the poor graveyard of my town it is remains sanctified in its seclusion. I sit under drooping boughs of this cursed Balete tree, whose twisting and misshapen trunk and drooping vines seem like it could just swallow me up, if I blink the warped forms will come alive – exposing their true nature as unholy and hungry tentacular flesh beneath a hardened crust. The too-imaginative mind needs not the terrors of the dark, for it is always darkest in the unfathomable space behind one’s eyes.
Simply speaking, I am not a very imaginative man.
I awaited the appearance of my great-grandfather’s ghost, but I suppose as a good Christian I should not have expected anything to happen. No such excitement tonight, for the sin of suicide he should still be in Purgatory, and it is only during the Day of the Dead when the boundaries weaken and souls may cross over. If every place touted as haunted would allow such apparitions so easily, then there would be no point in saying masses for the dead.
There is no fear for the supernatural in me, unfortunately. That mystery is closed to me. If there are ghosts, let me welcome them. Come, spectres! Come, spooks! Let me do science to you!
There is only the noise of a living jungle. And the mosquitoes. God, this a horrible idea.
‘When you tried to talk me out of this, you should have used this much more comprehensible drawback instead of trying to frighten me about Elias bringing his bandit friends with him!’, I rail silently towards my advisors of some hours ago. Men of even darkest hearts I might persuade, but insects care nothing for social-fu!
Ah! Finally I espy a light through the trees. It is Basilio, carrying a lantern, and of course Doggol bounding happily at his side.
Behind the boy follows a man with mildly brown skin with a trimmed mustache and long hair, clad in simple peasant clothes that filled out with his powerful, martial physique. He wears a salakot, a wide-brimmed conical hat made of reeds, which hides most of his face under its shadow.
“Don Crisostomo,” Basilio bows slightly to me. “Elias,” he gestures to the man behind him.
I nod back. “Basilio.” Then to the visitor to my family tomb, “Elias.”
Elias does not look sure how to respond. A bolo hangs by his hips, and as they enter the clearing his hand drifts closer to the hilt. A man of actual violence and power to my being of implied violence and influence.