All posts by Carlo Marco

People are Stealing My Story and I am Lol

An Unprofitable Effort

What I have learned through regular updates through these past months is something similar yet different to Gaurav. As much as it sounds like a terrible waste of time to write fanfic anymore, as an experiment you do at least get immediate feedback for what works or not in what you’re writing. The difference between a fanfic and a serial novel is actually fairly small – we call that sort of thing a web novel (which we’ll discuss later in this essay) and it has been fairly productive in gathering reader responses about what they like to see in a story and what they don’t like about the usual web novels that they read.

Now, before we continue let me just say again that the best way to write is just to Sit Down, Shut Up, and Get It Done. Do it all in one go, don’t bother trying to justify yourself to anyone. Don’t let anything stop you – be the next J.K. Rowlings, or at least note my friend Gaurav (lonewanderer) who decided to just bravely bite the bullet and quit his job to finally get most of his novel done. Let nothing get in the way of your writing.

My experiment trades the pursuit of something publishable someday for the immediate dopamine rush of reader response and reviews. And from that, a concrete idea of the specific niche that suits my writing style. How my readers like my pacing, character development, and emotional involvement in the words I put down.

It was for this reason that I chose to Reconstruct Isekai Smartphone, after all. A story so lacking in characters and plot that I could do almost anything with it, but it felt more rewarding to polish a dirty rock into a diamond as a proof of concept that there are no inherently bad tropes, just bad executions.

But even in its base form, a story such as this could become successful. So you have to at least respect Patora Fuyuhara’s work ethic and the odd happy meeting of tropes that make it so derivative as a power fantasy and yet also so utterly inoffensive. It’s the literary equivalent of sugar water.

 

How Do You Manipulate the Reader’s Emotions?

Pardon if I refer you to TVTropes for a while. The Isekai Genre is the lowest common denominator for power fantasy in Japanese web novels, often mixing in both Boring Invincible Hero and their Harem. Usually it means someone who dies is transplanted onto another fantasy world, sometimes with their own bodies or reborn in a local.

In Chinese web novels, transmigration stories such as these are often mixed with a System with a gamelike interface that more blatantly allows the MC to cheat, or a Peggy Sue time travel back to the past plot for glorious revenge.

Yes, these are trite plots that lend a lot towards making a horrible mess of a Mary Sue/Marty Sue of a protagonist.

But rather than deride readers for having very poor taste, let’s think. Why are these sort of power fantasies so popular? Why is it that other people are willing to go along with what is practically a form of literary masturbation?

Because if you think about it really, many of us feel helpless in our daily lives, trapped by the system, limited in our ability to change the world around us. We see injustice and are unable to confront it, we are made to feel cowardly and weak by the threat of social violence. Many feel lost and unwanted.

It’s interesting to me how Japanese and Chinese web novels differ. In Japanese WN, the protagonist shows off a lot, gets an easy harem, and loves to be underestimated before cutting loose. In Chinese WN, specially the wuxia genre, there’s no end of loathsome arrogant enemies that exist mainly to talk smack and be smacked down. “Face-slapping” is a visceral thrill, showing those powerful what for when they find someone who is strong enough not to give a shit about their plots or their threat of violence or their social influence.

The Western counterpart is actually pretty easy to identify, you’ve got no end of action heroes or superheroes. But they tend to struggle more, if only because the ‘web novel’ genre has largely been killed in its crib by fan fiction. And fan fiction passed under the radar as just an irrelevant guilty pleasure. Published works get more editorial control.

Still, all of us feel a vicarious thrill when the hero finally gets to show off. The Hulk finally ‘hulking out’, or the climax of an action movie when the hero basically just blasts through the opposition. Web novels take that feeling and try hold it all the time.

As each arc ends, the next one is just a setup for the next round of faceslapping. Character growth really just doesn’t happen as much.

People are bored with heroes that win all the time and even more so with villains that win all the time. What’s the difference?

 

What Makes Your Work Any Different?

As Megamind once said: PRESENTATION!

I’ve long been accused of a whiplash style of narrative. I mix comedy and snappy dialog with emotional drama. Because that’s long been my belief about pacing – you can’t keep the reader amped up all the time, sometimes you need to relax the pace. Sometimes you need to let it dip. Other writers think of writing as something like a building under construction, making something worth the reader’s time. And that’s perfectly good, that’s the road to something publishable.

But to me, writing is more like a performance.

That’s the part where instant feedback and regular updates help. Interacting with the audience can be so addictive, but it also goes both ways. It’s not pandering to the audience, but knowing that you can affect their views as much as they can have valid complaints too.

You push out with your energy, and they push it right back, and it sets up this feedback loop that unlike working alone trying to build that manuscript, leaves you riding high slapping out those words so eager to see if the reaction you get is the one you’re trying to provoke with your writing. On and on until you crash.

That is the difference.

-x-

My reconstruction story, IN ANOTHER WORLD WITH JUST MONIKA, takes just one element of IN ANOTHER WORLD WITH SMARTPHONE – the fact that smartphone should be an interesting part of the plot in itself or don’t bother mentioning it in the title. Like a Checkov’s Gun, if you draw attention to it, better damn well use it or the reader will feel cheated.

So instead of Touya, who is so utterly bland as to be a reader stand-in, we have Playa. Who deliberately makes it clear that he was shedding his prior identity, even so far never mentioning his name.

 He has his own motivations, his own personality, but as an audience surrogate I’ve found that readers don’t necessarily need a blank slate. Playa just LOVES being in this alternate world so much, that readers replied they want to find out more about the world and how it works just because it’s so interesting to him. What should basically be clichés become fascinating in a vicarious way, as someone seeks to experience it all as something completely new and desirable – to experience it again as someone from a world tired and mired in fakeness and greed and moral uncertainty.

But he’s also a self-medicating manic-depressive, so in some ways there’s tension in that if he stops you can almost believe he would shatter. It takes A LOT for some people to get the emotional engine cranking again once they fall into that pit.

And instead of completely unremarkable smartphone, we have one in which lives a digital being named Monika, the girl from the infamous visual novel Doki Doki Literature Club. She is a jealous monster who does not expect to be forgiven, but also a tortured soul that wants to change. To be better. The tension comes from not knowing if she will continue to be a good person or end up brainwashing and murdering a whole lot of people again out of sick love.

Unlike your typical reincarnation or transmigration story, there’s no advance knowledge of the plot or any prior knowledge of the world. They have to discover and adapt to everything as they find it. Unfortunately, being so well-read, they often mistake the tropes of what they encounter as something else – that’s why the tagline is “Playa and Monika’s Completely Wrong Genre-Savvy Adventures”.

It’s horrid cliché of a world, but it’s a world that’s so full of mystery and wonder to them. The people they encounter are not just cardboard caricatures, but shaped by their environment – and the gaps are filled in to explain why in the previous canon they all act as they do. This is the running theme of the work – yes, it’s a generic fantasy world. But NO ONE has ever really been to a real generic fantasy world.

They are flawed protagonists, but are both trying to be better people. Unlike your typical isekai trash, they are both familiar with the words of Benjamin Parker.

But being intelligent well-read people, they understand that just like the Three Laws of Robotics, a rigid rule has flaws.

            “What’s wrong with you?” Elze asked. “You have all six external elements now, that’s ridiculous. You don’t have to look so sad about it.” She huffed and crossed her arms. “In the name of all of us who were born with only the Null elements, I’m offended by that. Why not just be happy?”

            “Yes, this should be a cause for celebration, shouldn’t it?” added Linze.

            I sighed. “I am going to tell you two different sentences to live by. Both are equally true, and equally terrifying.”

            Elze lifted an eyebrow and with a slight raise of her chin wordlessly bid me to continue.

            “The first, is that [with great power comes great responsibility].”

            Elze nodded. “Okaaay. I agree with that.”

            “The second, is that [there is no obligation in power, only privilege].”

            Elze frowned, opened her mouth to speak, and then stopped.

            “Bollocks,” she hissed at last.

            Monika sucked in her breath, showing her clenched teeth in the cute gap between her lips. /”I really wish I could disagree, but you’re right. Live either of those words to the utmost, and they’re terrifying.”/

            “People like me don’t just happen for no reason. The best thing to do with this cheat affinity is a life of gentle mediocrity, or some sort of relaxing business isekai, but somehow I don’t feel this life will allow us that.” I gave a sad little smile and reached for the last stone.

            “I’m no hero like the Spider-Man, who would give and give and give, trying to fight crime and injustice in the small hours between taking care of his studies and his family, hiding his face so that his enemies don’t follow him home. Getting wounded and battered and blasted for no pay, no benefit to himself at all, other than the knowledge of doing the right thing.”

            I held the colorless stone up to eye level. “Nor do I have any tangible ambitions of conquest and supremacy. Like hell I want the hassle that comes with politics and ruling. I’m not a warrior, for me strength is its own reward. You need strength to protect the ones you care about, but if you care only for strength then you’ll stand utterly alone at the top of the world.

            “There’s just one test remaining – if this stone doesn’t activate, fate is not so fickle as to put something like me here to balance out some great calamity that’s about to happen.”

        Elze looked dubious at my overly dramatic declarations, while Linze had an intent expression.

            Aaand…

Treat the whole thing seriously, but never so seriously as to forget that things can happen arbitrarily for humor, and no one is every immune to it. Even the MC is as much a valid target for situational humiliation as anyone.

It’s like a Let’s Play or watching someone react to Queen for the first time. Or Disneyland from the eyes of a child.

Delight like that is infectious.

Escapism is a completely valid reason to ready anything too.

Conventional literary wisdom has it that a character needs to be challenged. I fully agree with this. However, not all challenges need to be physical. Power should not be met by power. If your character is powerful, don’t try to amp the drama by throwing him against stronger and stronger enemies, but confront him with problems that can’t be solved through violence.

Or, if you’re like me and doing all this for humor, make the MC character himself the problem and watch as everyone else runs around with mistaken conceptions trying to deal with this total OCP of a nutbar and find a way to slot him somewhere into their mental landscape.

Playa is a Showy Invincible Hero and the audience is asked to indulge in the kayfabe.

 

Six Months In, What’s the Result?

I went into this experiment with the primary goal of not writing a story, but to manipulate the reader’s emotions. Plot is important. Is the reader invested in the story as it happens? Characterization is important. Who are the readers shipping? Pacing is important. Would the readers be bored if I drag this on too long?

It’s a comedy. Are they laughing?

It’s an action scene? I can only hope that the audience will find this as awesome as I imagine.

As a recent review goes:

This may be just a proof of concept for the author, but it’s become my favorite of all his works. I see the stuff I’d appreciated before, but the language is cleaner and the writing’s fresher- it really looks like he’s having fun, as opposed to being weighed down by the vast majesty of the world he shaped like in something else I love. This is a meal of like 90% sugar, and I’ve developed a taste for it.

And another:

I’ve followed this story when it was still in its early chapters cuz I like Monika and the twist made in this fanfic I found interesting. 

I’m a seafarer and I always download books and stories to read. One of it is this fanfic and I give you many thanks for the laughs and joy this amazing read gave me. 

I offer my sincerest wish that you can breakthrough tough situations in life. I may not know what you feel but I know myself that carrying on forward(not moving on) is the best way when you’re lost.

Thanks for being an author to an awesome story. I’ll keep watch of your works to come.

-x-

New writers tend to have a problem with pacing or characterization. They fear their plots are too trite and predictable. The feeling of getting nowhere. Of treading the same issues over and over again. (This is largely why the cyclical nature of xianxia adventures and the utter lack of interesting antagonists or developed secondary characters is such a bore.)

As a proof of concept, I took the most trite and predictable of plots and just by making it Consequentialist, in which the absence of a specific power is carried through to the most logical conclusion,  every decision influences an event in the future, so even the hokiest and blandest generic isekai fantasy setting becomes fresh again.

Not to say that you should pander to your readers, but if anything, you should be setting up and subverting their expectations. This is where all those shitty other WNs help this particular genre, because people are so used about what to expect that fulfilling them doesn’t matter while defying their expectations is such a pleasant surprise.

For you, perhaps the most important  questions are:

  • “What is my niche?”
  • “What are the expectations that the targeted audience will have towards stories in this niche?”
  • “How much should I conform to their expectations for a comfortable sense of familiarity, and how much should I defy for the actual interesting points that set my work apart from all the others?”

This is why a writer is a reader first. You write what you personally want to read.

(And yes, I have horrible tastes in literature and I accept that. :p )

An audience is not strictly necessary for a writer. If you have a strong literary voice, your own emotions will resonate across the page. You can do this for your published works even while you write in a cave. This VOICE is a combination of word choice, pacing, dialog, world-building, all these other subconscious little tools in your literary toolbox that only comes out when you feel confident in what you’re writing.

Steal the shit of whatever cool like quips you may have heard from movies and books and anything else elsewhere. You know the saying: only beginners plagiarize, pros file off the serial numbers and pass it off as their own.

When you are utterly shameless, you are a free soul not weighed down by gravity.

I know some writers struggle with how their characters don’t turn out the way they wanted, and normally I’d wonder about how organically growing them is a bad thing – except that plot and character now are conflicting, and it’s completely dissatisfying.

Like blocks refusing to fit, a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. I think that a lot of these boils down to “what see myself speaking through the page isn’t what I wanted to say at all”. And that’s good. Your own personal literary validity is the most important of all. Writing in isolation means being able to winnow through all of these doubts until you make something you’re confident in.

What this experiment has revealed to me is that “Whatever you write, there’s always going to be some reader interested in that.” You can’t please everybody, but you will always be pleasing somebody.

 

The Statistics

Just like with a franchise business, location is everything.

In six months, 600k views on webnovel.

It took me almost a decade to get 2.5 million views on another story of mine, with almost 3/4th of a million words.

It’s interesting to find statistics like this. It’s understandable that it’s most popular in America and the Philippines, but why Italy and Indonesia?

 

So What’s With the Stealing of Your Story?

Well as you can see, posting on webnovel has a significantly greater audience than the platform we’re all familiar with, fanfiction.net, which still has an interface as if stuck in the early 2000s. The funny thing is that webnovel has a poor reputation of stealing the translations of others translating Chinese web novels and posting over on their own site.            

There is also how reading their novels requires ‘spirit stones’ to unlock chapters, which could either be given by daily logins or bought by real money. Web novels can run for thousands of chapters, and reading one to the full can cost you mucho real dollars if you’re impatient.

So there are ironically sites that steal webnovel/qidian content and repost them on their own sites to make their own profits off ad revenue.

It’s like a grand circle of life.

And ever since webnovel added a fanfiction section for others to post their stories, some people have decided to post other people’s long well-regarded stories there without permission from their authors – like Fulcon’s Shinobi: the RPG or Sir Poley’s Harry Potter and the D20.

I decided to post my stories there first so that at least I’d have some control over what happens.  

And since IAWJM now has over 100 chapters it’s automatically being scraped and reposted on other sites. It makes me lol because those other sites don’t have a fanfiction section and so it’s put on the block with the same validity as actual web novels and people who don’t realize the source material are struck by how different it is compared to the other self-indulgent messes with asshole protagonists they read.

And I’m left thinking – I wonder if there’s someone translating this without my knowledge on some other foreign langue site?

That would be just fine too.

Translating is hard work too, you know. I’ve tried to scanlate some old Filipino komiks before. It takes a lot of brainpower to convey the words accurately instead of just literally.

 

Yeah It Was Just Clickbait

Sorry.

Why So Many Writers End Up as Manic Depressives

Please watch the video first.

-x-

And so my commentary based on the video:

-x-

 Today we say, “that man is a genius”. But in ancient times, it is said, “that man has a genius”.

I used to think that complaining about the muse is a silly excuse that writers use to avoid responsibility for their work, or at least long-standing running gag between writers. However the difference between hollow literature and something that resonates with the reader is how much genuine feeling can be put into the page.
 
And that’s why we obsess over quality, when that is merely the superficial concern about how much the author’s intent can be understood from little more than words on a page. Writing is an art and a craft. The craftsmanship we can admire from the strong, precise choice of words, the pattern of sentences and dialogue that build up to an effect. The art is the whisper in the back of our minds, “This feels right.”
 
-x-
 
The human brain is composed of the part that is a genius and the part that is reptilian. There is no convincing the lizard brain, it only recognizes emotions. But it is the spark in the chamber that drives everything else. Likewise, the genius brain can have all the knowledge you can access, but it can’t fit anything together when there’s too much choices. The genius must offer options, the lizard must devour the unwanted, like Ma’at feeding sinful hearts to Ammit.
 
Various subconscious influences like your body, your environment, your influences, the other things you have read, in many ways we can’t explain how words just appear in our minds to make the vague plan become a real story.
 
The lizard brain is lazy. If you let it, it would rather just sleep and distract itself with amusements again. The dopamine rush is the same. The genius brain is happy to cooperate, because it treats solving any problem with a dopamine rush the same as getting something done; and the logical part of the brain betrays you by saying that if it is easier, then it is logically doing well for less work.
 
Our brains are kinda dumb, that’s what I’m saying.  Don’t forget that as much as we extol sapience, we are all still made of meat.
 
-x-
 
So it is fair to say that behind the writer is this big invisible bundle of illogical mysterious force out of our control that is responsible for making the words come out. You can say “my muse is being an asshole” as much as my “my subconscious is being an asshole” but “wait, isn’t my subconscious, me” so “Am I an asshole?” so it is better “My muse is an uncooperative spiteful bitch.”
 
The conscious you is not solely responsible for the writing that you do.
 
The genius, the creative mind separate from yourself, it is not acknowledging this that makes us modern writers feel so pressured and in despair. We seek to please everyone because we can’t decide our own standards. But if you write to someone else’s specifications, the story is sapped of authenticity.
 
Have you ever looked back at your writing and gone “Oh, this is good! What was I thinking back then? What was I feeling? If I could get into that mental state again… do I have to relax? I know I was gaming a little bit, how come I didn’t end up wasting so much time again as usually happens? What made me stop and concentrate?”
 
We all seek validation, but before that we need to actually write. Serial novels get that validation and the pressure to keep writing to a schedule so as not to disappoint your loyal readers. But of course books done in isolation are of higher quality, made under much more pressure to the much more demanding audience of one’s own unfair standards; you can’t be the next JK Rowlings if you don’t just sit down, shut up, and get it done.
 
The novelist trades away the instant gratification of commentary for the hopes of a tighter, more satisfying narrative later on.
 
So prime the lizard brain, feed it your unnecessary thoughts and knowledge, and listen to the giggling of the muse behind you, saying “Don’t get too full of yourself, boyo. Do you really think you’re the only one responsible for all of this?”
 
So go ahead and blame your muse too if what you’re writing doesn’t turn out right. She’s cute but kinda incompetent too.
 
“Meh.”
 

You got your tense medical drama into my shameless isekai fantasy story?!

Half the fun about literature is the unexpected, and this goes for both reader and writer. This is doubly true when you are talking about derivative material.

 

As a writer, it can still surprise me where the story can go even as I’m writing it. Take for example this simple scene in the Light Novel, Isekai Wa Smartphone:

Since the summoner had been taken care of, the remaining Lizardmen simply faded away. I assumed they’d gone back to wherever he’d pulled them out from.

“Looks like it’s over… Everyone alright?”

“I’m doing great,” Elze replied.

“I-I’m alright as well,” Linze meekly muttered.

“As am I, I am.” We made it out alright, but the people who had been attacked had suffered great losses. One of the remaining soldiers made his way over to me, leg dragging behind him.

“Th-Thank you… you saved us…”

“Don’t mention it… What’s the casualty rate?”

“Of ten bodyguards… they got seven of us… Damn it! If only we’d noticed sooner…!” The man trembled in frustration and clenched his fist. I felt the same, in a way. If only we had shown up a little bit sooner… but there was little point in dwelling on such things any longer.

“S-Someone! Is someone there? Gramps… Gramps is…!” We all turned to face the carriage when we unexpectedly heard the voice of a girl. Crying and shouting, a little girl with long, blonde hair clambered out of the carriage. She looked to only be about ten years old.

We ran over to the carriage, and next to the white clothed little girl lay a gray-haired old man in a black formal outfit. Blood flowed from his chest as he wheezed in pain.

“Please save Gramps! He was hit by an arrow…!” The girl, face soaked in tears, begged us for help. This old man must’ve been very important to her. The soldiers brought the old man down from the carriage and laid him down on the grass.

“Linze! Can’t you use your Healing magic on him?!”

“…I-I can’t. The arrow must have snapped, and part of it is still lodged in the wound. If I heal him in this condition, the arrowhead will get stuck inside his body… E-Even that aside… my magic wouldn’t b-be effective on a wound this dire…!” Linze’s words were laced with apology and regret.

As soon as the little girl heard what Linze had to say, her face clouded over with despair. She gripped the elderly man’s hand tightly as she wept, and it looked like she would never stop crying.

“Young miss…”

“Gramps…? Gramps!”

“I am afraid… that we must part here… But please know… the days I spent with you… were among the happiest of my— ghh! Ack…!”

“Gramps, that’s enough!” Damn… the old man was coughing and sputtering. Was there really nothing we could do? I had never tried out major Healing magic before, but I had read about it in the tomes Linze had let me borrow. I knew the incantation, too. It wasn’t impossible for me to cast… probably.

Should I take a gamble here? But even if I heal him up with the broken arrow still lodged in the wound, there’s no telling what might happen. The wound healing up might even make the arrow sink in deeper, which would make it pierce his heart… Wait… if I could just pull the arrow… out of the wound…

That’s it!

“Please, move out of the way!” I hurried the soldiers aside and knelt down by the old man. After that, I quickly pulled one of the other arrows out from the side of the carriage and committed the shape of the arrowhead to memory. Then, I focused on the image strongly in my mind.

“[Apport]!” In an instant, a blood-soaked and broken arrowhead was firmly gripped in my hand.

“Amazing! You used the spell to retrieve the arrow!” Elze looked at my hand and almost screamed with joy. But I wasn’t done yet, there was one more step.

“Come forth, Light! Soothing Comfort: [Cure Heal]!” As I cast the spell, the wound in the old man’s chest gently began to regenerate. It was almost like watching a video rewind itself. It continued like that until the jagged opening had closed up completely.

“…What is this? The pain… is receding? Whatever is happening, it… doesn’t hurt? It doesn’t hurt… I’m healed?”

“Gramps!” The old man sat there, completely baffled, but upright and unharmed, as the little girl threw her arms around him. She cried countless tears of relief, refusing to let go of the old man all the while.

Watching the sight made all of us let out our own relieved sighs. We slumped to the ground.

“Phew…” Well, I was just glad it had all worked out.

So, a little background. Touya Mochizuki, the MC (Main Character) of this story has the usual cheats of an isekai novel protagonist, and is blessed with almost inexhaustible magic power, the ability to use any magic spell of any of the main elements, and ANY personal magic classed under the [Null] element.

He learned the spell [Aports] just a while ago. While on the road, he and his companions rescued a carriage being attacked by summoned lizardmen. The summoner wanted to capture the little girl inside in order to force her father, a Duke of the kingdom.

Touya and company defeated the ambush, and here we see how he used [Aports] in order to remove the arrowhead and then heal the wound. Is it clever? Is it impressive?

Well certainly in-setting it seems so. People sounded very impressed about it.

It’s a fairly breezy 741 words.

So what did I change in my version of the story?

First, it was expanded to 2200 words.

Within the scene, it was explained why he had an arrow wound that broke off inside his body. The little girl’s fear is expanded a little more, a bit more dialog.

And most importantly, the MC DOES NOT CONVENIENTLY HAVE THE [APORTS] SPELL.

The spell brings the object to between the caster’s hands. Monika cannot use [Aports], because as a digital being that lives inside a smartphone, she has no hands. 

This means that within those 2.2k words, the most that could be done was emergency medical treatment to bind the wound. No magic was used.

Actually healing the wound would use up an entire chapter, another 3.3k words, and it’s not just the MC doing everything.

Since they lacked the [Aports] spell to trivialize the whole thing, they actually had to do field surgery. Everyone had to do something to contribute. Everyone had to feel the pressure and the fear of making a mistake that could kill.

Is this better? What’s wrong with brevity and moving the story along?

Let’s have a look at some of the reader responses.

That’s some fantasy Trauma Center shit right there.

majikero

Well, dunno about anyone else, but none of the things talked about in the chapter were things I didn’t learn in my high-school biology class, so it doesn’t break my SOD. As for his success in operating, magic, as Monika said, work off intent and seem to be relatively self-correcting. An earlier chapter also note he’s been practicing healing magic in particular too.

Deathwings

I personally loved this chapter because it really examines the kind of knowledge and application you’d need to use to heal someone with magic. All the time it’s simply treated as glowy white stuff that miraculously fixes everything. (except cutscene wounds. Damn you cutscenes!)

But here, simply accelerating the body’s natural healing won’t work. He’ll be long dead before then. So, magic can greatly assist in keeping him alive until then. Now that I think about it, Playa’s medical ability and knowledge might be one of his most valuable assets, especially if he’s going to continue adventuring around, fighting people.

TheOrange

When I started writing this story, there was not really any intention of particularly focusing on the esoteric meanings of magic. This medical drama was not expected, not even by me, but as I was writing it is seemed to naturally emerge from the limitations and practical knowledge of those involved.

 

Okay, ‘medical spells’ are spells that act like a doctor does – basically keeping the patient alive by stitching up holes and/or making new holes to let the body heal itself back to (semi)functionality.

Healing spells (and some iryo-jutsu) do the healing for the patient – like the kind that magics up fresh, healthy cells, makes blood where there is none, makes diseases/poisons and their byproducts go poof, brings the patient back to life while doing all of the previous, etc.

…and I never knew how badly I needed a magical system with ‘medical spells’ rather than healing spells. Put that in a magical buddy cop story and I’ll read it until the end of time.

KafkaExMachina

That is the difference. Usually [Heal] magic just refills someone’s HP, there’s no tension nor acknowledgement that you’re rebuilding the body. There’s no sense of how it is limited or the need for the caster to study anything.

I blame this on how Healing Magic was actually first used in RPGs under Clerical Magic, in effect they were actually Applied Miracles and the gods didn’t need to bother with learning anything about medicine.

Unfortunately, as [Heal] became necessary for the task of keeping the party alive and became a common sight, we lost some of the wonder and awe inherent to [Healing] magic.

Few even bother to remember anymore that [Regeneration] would certainly not save you from needing surgery.

There was discussion between leaving the arrow in and simply healing it over, so that the injured could survive traveling for two more days and then have the doctors cut him open again to remove the arrowhead and stop the internal bleeding.

There was also the reason to dare to risk field surgery in unsterile conditions because they have already been ambushed once, and staying on the road was an unacceptable risk to their noble miss.

Lacking [Apport] they actually had to make forceps out of bent pieces of armor, cut into the wound with a sharpened fruit knife, and pull it out before they could actually [Heal] the wound. It was a slow and painful process.

I put up another question:

Okay, guys, so I need to make a blog post about the difference between [Apport] and how lacking it led to a more drawn-out medical scene. Why do you think it is more impressive to have something done with difficulty rather than with ease?

The same reason Tony Stark making a suit of powered armor in a cave with a box of scraps is arguably more impressive than any of his later armors save, perhaps, the bleeding edge armor. It conveys a lot more required skill, thought, nerve, conviction, and ingenuity, because we’re watching someone do something very difficult with less than ideal tools and conditions.

Interestingly I think it only really came off as impressive, because of the original scene and how simply it was handled there. Without that as context, Playa’s massive magic affinity, access to the internet’s unimaginably wide database of medical information, and all this capable (if untrained) assistance, would actually somewhat lessen those aspects of what made the feet so impressive.

Of course, pulling that off would still be plenty impressive on it’s own. But you asked why this seemed more impressive, not why it seemed impressive in general.

Mizuki_Stone

Personally, I think it’s like the difference between MacGuyver and Batman. With MacGuyver, you get so see him solve a problem with his own wits, knowledge, and whatever he has on hand. With Batman, there’s mostly a Utility Belt ex Machina that solves whatever problem right away so we can see him go back to punching the Joker.

In the end, MacGuyver ends up being more satisfying to watch because the viewer has that sense of “Oh hell yes it’s working!” when MacGuyver improvises a solution using only the material he has with him.

lt_agn02

Something done with difficulty engages the reader more because it does not trivialize the problem at hand. There’s more sympathy and sense of accomplishment when you follow along the character’s actions.

There’s actual bravery involved, from the ad hoc medical team and the patient that had to watch his own chest being cut open because they best they could offer was a magical local anaesthetic.

Victory is only there if there is the possibility of loss.

Touya just solved the whole thing within three paragraphs.

There was no drama at all.


When writing or reviewing a scene, it’s important to note the purpose of those paragraphs. In the original, it was to showcase the utility of the [Aports] spell, which no one else other than Touya could use.

It was meant to tell the reader that he was special and indispensable. Which is… ehh. Were you as impressed as the other characters in it?

In the altered version, the purpose of the scene was to reveal to Sue, the little noble girl, that [Healing] magic was not so simple and that it takes actual work to save lives. It’s much easier to end lives than to save lives.

Being a doctor was a respectable occupation, a noble occupation even, and now she actually had motivation to be more than just someone’s trophy wife late.

The MC needed help, even though he had boatloads of magic power on his own, he only had two hands, and those two hands were most useful doing magic spells that could keep the patient alive during the operation.

Monika, being an AI, could not contribute physically but without [Diagnosis] none of this could be possible.

Yae, the samurai girl, showed that her skill with sword, her excellence at cutting flesh, could also be used to save lives.

Linze, who also had the [Light] magic affinity to [Heal] wounds, needed the nerve to swab blood and widen a wound more than than just magic power – and that nerve not to flinch when needed by others makes her a stronger character than when she started.

Elze, her twin sister, whose boyish traits often left her feeling useless in times of delicacy, had the bravery to make the final pull of the object from the wound, the sheer guts to do what was likely to actually kill the patient instantly if improperly handled.

Even the patient, Butler Reim, showed how much he was dedicated to his duty but at the same time he genuinely loved his little miss and did not want to leave her behind just yet. As long as the girl needed him, he would be there to serve her.

Less is more but sometimes more is just more.

In between death and life, there is growth.

Every day, daily updates. The story has now breached 70k words in little more than a month. Every day, every character grows a little more compared to how they were yesterday.

I respect the work ethic that went into Isekai Smartphone that led to it being 12 volumes. But fundamentally, the characters remained the same at the end as they were at the beginning.

But most of all ‘In Another World World With Smartphone‘ never really had the smartphone be interesting at any point.

Remember that. It is foundational to the changes of this story… literally everything follows from this one simple change in the premise.

It’s “Another World with the Most Interesting Smartphone“.

You can start to read it all here (SB), in the place where I do daily updates.

A more edited version also updates daily over at Webnovel.com, here. It is delayed by some chapters, but benefits from later proofreading.

I am beyond shame.

So I actually have been updating at least 1000 words daily for a whole month now somewhere else.

Why?

I’m getting some serious reviews out of what should be just another stupid wish fulfillment story.

 I love this- the original in another world with my smartphone was so formulaic of the isekai genre’s most standard tropes that it was entertaining like a car crash, and digestable like soup- interesting in how bad some of the choices would be for a story and yet so standard for isekai that one can stomach it- altogether potentially entertaining but no real substance.

The story basically gave the MC every possible advantage an isekai protagonist type could get (physical enhancements, ultimate magic potential, and tech from his past world) and the MC was so bland and nice that you kind of shrug and go along with a lot of what he does. It had good moments- I like how out of all the power the mc has the spell he wins the most with is the magical equivalent of a cartoon banana peel, and the uses of comboing his phone with the world’s magic is interesting- but he isn’t a chosen or summoned hero, any great threat to the world is far away and only hinted at worst so there is little to justify the MC being so powerful and he is so bland that while he doesn’t grate on the viewer he doesn’t engage either. Its like they threw in as many isekai tropes they liked and removed any they didn’t so all the characters are nice the threats are mostly easily overcome and wanted to see what kind of story that would be.

A bunch of the boosts the MC got would be interesting alone- the physical enhancements with no magic would force him to compete against others who certainly have some form of magic helping, the universal magical alignment would be interesting especially as it give access to certain relics later on in the story as their creator was the same- but having unlimited mana means the MC is never forced to be creative, and every trick he does use feels like an idle thought, but if he had normal mana levels he would have to be strategic in how he spent his power, just throwing more mana at the problem wouldn’t work. Having infinite mana could be intersting too, depending on what spells he knew, the point would be to force creativity. Heck just the smartphone could be don well, as you have shown here, depending on how it interacts with the world’s magic.

In your story you have managed to make it tens if not hundreds of times more engaging by first, giving the MC a personality, 2nd by giving him someone to bounce off of in the form of Monika, 3rd create investment in their pasts and issues, and 4th rebuilt every moderately interesting interaction in the canon story into a new more entertaining form by having said characters be involved and actually HAVE character, and finally, you make the isekai protagonist powers interesting again by not only giving them to someone who actually thinks about them, but by limiting them and spliting them between the MC and Monika you enhance their character interactions and make the possiblities many times more interesting because we know they will try and do interesting things with it.

So in short Bravo I can’t wait to read more

And –

 So I somehow only stumbled across this today and binged it. I’m with you that I really think the main character of In Another World With My Smartphone is too overpowered to be anything but boring, and I think you’re absolutely right, dropping the power level slightly is gonna make things more interesting.

And then Monika cranks the power level right back up, but A) her Null powers are still less broken than Touya’s, and B) her power boosts increase the drama, not eliminate it!

I should not really be proud of writing goddamn fanfic, but this really goes back to my core beliefs as a writer. I believe that there is no inherently ‘bad’ concept – it’s all just a matter of how you take the idea.

I believe that a story is made mediocre only by not following through to the furthest extent the implications of they have plainly written.

Powerlevels don’t matter. There are more ways than just physical conflict to introduce tension into a story.

Character -> Plot -> Conflict.

Just look at this thing.

Just look at this utterly generic yahoo.

Isekai wa Smartphone is almost impressive as a standard for how bland and generic and utterly lacking in challenge as an anime can be. It is so bad that it can’t even be called bad, because that would imply the work could actually provoke any strong emotion.

And that’s why I felt compelled to do this. Because it’s my proof of concept.

Take as generic and one-note the characters, as servicing the protagonist the story may be, and actually just change one thing – one tiny little thing – and the whole thing suddenly acquires a lot more depth if you dare to follow that everything else that changes because of that alteration in the premise.

Just change the perspective by which the protagonist views the world he’s entered into.

In Another World with JUST MONIKA sure isn’t high literature, but if Isekai wa Smartphone could get published and get turned into an anime, sure as hell there’s hope for us writers to make it big eventually.

I actually respect it for the length and sheer effort that went into writing it for eleven books now, despite the sheer lack of worldbuilding and what could have been juicy plotlines that went nowhere.

What any writer needs most is that work ethic.

I’m not trying to ‘correct’ the story, but to demonstrate character balance –  why harem anime is stupid, not just because it is demeaning but because interesting female characters lose what is actually interesting about them and their brains when around the MC.

A strong female character does not necessarily need to be strong physically or magically – hell, there are a lot of overpowered characters I can point to that I can still deem as weak characters – but must have ideals and agency. Every person has things they value, things they can endure, and things they cannot.

Girls fighting over a boy is not drama. Canon Isekai Smartphone is actually fairly unique in that we don’t see any of that tired old bullshit, they actually communicated like sane people about their mutual desires.

None of that abusive tsundere female-on-male violence either.

(How strange, to call a work interesting because of everything it lacks instead of everything notable it may show to the reader.)

Isekai Smartphone lacked drama because no one could ever put anything of theirs at risk. No one’s ideals were ever at any point challenged. No one ever felt in danger of failing, of losing something meaningful to them.

I’m not making a more dramatic story. I’m making a story that dares to ask itself questions about what it wants to accomplish.

This is not a DECONSTRUCTION.

This is a RECONSTRUCTION of the whole goddamn genre.

I am going to keep writing this for a while until the inspiration burns out.

As a writing experiment, I think it may be useful in the long run. A writer usually doesn’t need to ask why what they have written is effective prose, only reach for that feeling – “Does this work?

It certainly feels like it’s working so I’m going to try to hang onto that, to absorb the unconscious value judgments I’ve been making, to reuse in more serious works later.

I’ll let you guys know when I’ve got even more original works out in the pipeline.

Writerblog online.

All right, let’s get this show on the road!

Karavanir.com is back online, and it’s time to get the workflow going again. For now, I’m testing functionality for blog posts expressing our views on the craft of writing.

This is CarloMarco, aka bluepencil. I hope you’ll find some of what we say to be worth reading.

Interlude -The Franciscan 01

The Franciscan Father Bernardo Salvi had an acute understanding of sin. Sin was fundamentally a weakness – the flaw in God’s Creation introduced by the weakness of man and woman at the Garden of Eden.

He was born in the tail end of the Third Carlist War, and whether his father was soldier fought for the Liberals or the Carlists was irrelevant. He never knew the man.

What he saw was his mother coming home with bruises after work, and on being asked by her neighbors “Why do you keep returning to that man?” she could only reply “We need the money”.

So Salvi understood that pain was not so strong a deterrent to humans compared to the lure of money. This was why he chose to levy punishments in the form of fines to his subordinates. Money could be put to more moral uses, pain was quickly forgotten.

As a child he was able to find work as a sacristan, and he found solace in the solemnity and holiness of its labor. The Liberals had seized church properties saying the priests did nothing but to leech of the honest work of the townsfolk, but Salvi did not see them paying for any orphanages. For all the talk of the Liberals advancing Spain’s worth in the world, none of that filtered down to the streets. Only the industrialists and the petty nobles profited.

1 Timothy 6:10 – For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

Bernardo Salvi moved through the world with an unhurried gait and sharp eyes, asking each and every one ‘What is your worth? For how much would you sell your soul?

Salvi trained himself to deal with money, but it was nothing to him, and for that though in the convent he was called a greedy miser the others knew he was scrupulously honest. Fines he collected were almost immediately put to the benefit of the church or into usable goods, there was little point in asking him for what has already been spent.

He deprived himself of luxuries, for they were a barrier to faith. Saints could live on faith alone, and how he tried!

Yet for all his disdain for mankind’s weakness, he had underestimated that other great instigator, the one that even caused angels to Fall.

Lust.

-x-

Salvi sat beside Padre Damaso’s bed, while the corpulent older priest sweated fitfully. The pains in his body from being thrown into the mudhole still had not faded, but perhaps it was more the dirty water he’d swallowed that left him feverish. Still he glared with what strength he could muster and said, “Is there nothing you wish to confess to me, Bernardo? Have you chanced to find anything of my old belongings left behind?”

“I know of no such thing, Padre Damaso.”

Since the hiding place was empty, the older priest could only squint with suspicion. “Even so far from San Diego, I have some meager influence. You would not want someone as me as your enemy, Bernardo.”

“We are all brothers of the cloth, Padre Damaso. I have nothing to hide from you.”

Padre Damaso was steeped in weakness, but Salvi did not judge. His weakness was of the flesh, and Salvi was coming to understand how much his vows could ache. If it celibacy was so easy, then there would be no point in the sacrifice, holiness does not come without effort.

It was at this point one of the sacristan dared to barge into the room.

“Padre, Padre Salvi! You’ve got to help!” the lad screeched. “Don Crisostomo is doing something strange in town again!”

-x-

At eleven o’clock on November the 10th, there was a procession for the Virgin of Peace.

The old and sweating gobernadorcillo led carrying the standard of Spain, followed by precious images, the Christian seven-branched silver menorah, and the venerable statue of Virgin clad in sumptuous satin blue and gold, each their own in silver carriages.

Behind the sanctified objects followed the Spaniards and the clergy, while the officiating priest protected by a canopy carried by the cabeza de barangay of the town, the poles straight and level on their shoulders as if they were spearmen.  A squad of Guardia Civil marched behind and around them to push aside anyone foolish enough to impede the procession. The townsfolk walked in two lines carrying lit candles behind them, with the marching band last in the procession. It was the middle of the day, and still fireworks saluted their approach.

The mass was conducted by Padre Salvi, but after the reading of the scripture the homily was said by Revered Father Manuel Martin, a distinguished orator and priest from Batangas, that province directly south of Laguna where they raise many bullocks and turkeys. Then the distinguished personages left with Padre Salvi to dine at the convent, while the even more distinguished guests from abroad and surrounding provinces were accepted at Capitan Tiago’s home.

In the center of town there was set up a stage. It was a larger stage than the usual, because the fiesta’s funding was also double than the usual.  The stage players from Tondo put it to good use last night, with their presentation of a play about a princess taken away by a giant – a kapre, in the local myths, a dark hairy creature who can also use magic – with much combat and swooning, all in Tagalog appreciated by the townsfolk.

The Spanish performances of the Insulares actors Ratia, Carvajal, and Fernandez, were only understood by the visitors and correspondents. Their subject was no less farcical however, interrupted by combat after every few minutes to keep the actors moving about and the play from looking stale. Shakespeare would not find much appreciation here.

Ibarra had suggested back at the town meeting that they should perhaps hold our shows first so that they would not be overshadowed by the professional theater from Tondo, but that was a mistake. He pricked their easily-mortified small-town Filipino pride, so instead the day after was the time for the local actors to show their talents.

The first show was a short play about Mariang Makiling and her three suitors – a humble Indio farmer, a Mestizo traveler, and a Spanish lieutenant. The half-caste plied Makiling with tales of his journeys abroad and if she chose him he would take her to see more than just these boring old forests and villages. The Spaniard gave lavish gifts and promised to keep her in luxury and ease for the rest of her life. The farmer, however, could offer nothing more than the meager fruits of his field and his vow of lifelong devotion.

She chose the humble farmer.

The two rejected suitors conspired to have him arrested and executed for sedition. Overcome with sorrow, Mariang Makiling withdrew to her mountain, never to be seen again. In a year, the two men would also die – the sophisticated mestizo traveler dying of dysentery in Manila, while the lieutenant is ambushed and killed by bandits. A fairly simple morality play.

The other play, the Gobernadorcillo, was about an old landowner who had troubles with people not paying taxes, clamoring for government money to support their projects and feastings, and the stupidity of his son trying to woo two girls at the same time. It was  a terribly hilarious farce.

No one laughed. For that was the defining quality of the Filipinos who watch stageplays, they do not laugh out loud or whistle or make cat-calls at the actors – they absorb it all silently, with an eerily somber politeness that discomfits foreigners; it feels as if they do not appreciate the productions, even in paid theaters.

But that was perfect movie-going etiquette.

Ibarra’s deranged laughter at the end of it was most distracting.

-x-

Don’t blink                                                                          Wag kang kukurap

Be brave                                                                               Maging matapang ka

Don’t be ashamed                                                           Walang hiya-hiya

Stand up with pride                                                         Igting tumindig ka

There’s only joy                                                                 Talagang saya-saya

When you breath anew                                                 Bugtong bagong hinga

There’s nothing you can lose                                       Walang mawawala

If you stuggle onnn!                                                       Kung mag-sigesige kaaaa!

 

Jumble jumble                                                                   Jambol jambol

Can you handle this?                                                      Kaya mo ba to?

Can you handle this?                                                      Kaya mo ba to?

Don’t be such a rock                                                       Wag maging bato

That you lose out!                                                             Para magpatalo!

Can you deal with thiiis?                                               Kaya mo ba toooo?!

 

-x-

“GOOOOOD AFTERNOOOOOON SAN DIEGO!” Ibarra screamed out. “How are you doing? Now, you might not know me, but surely you know our town’s good schoolmaster, Mister Navidad–“

“Uh… good afternoon everyone.”

“And I am Don Crisostomo Ibarra. Today we celebrate the feast of the patron saint that for whom our town is named. You’ve been patient watching our good actors under the hot sun, thank you for that. In this fiesta, among our amusements are contests. The palo sebo, the carabao race, and so on. But let us play one more game -”

Navidad explained that those who had come first and managed to get a seat were given a number. A tumbling raffle bin was brought out. Surely they were familiar with the idea of a drawing lots to win a prize. But that was too boring for Don Crisostomo.

Behind them were twenty young ladies of the town carrying twenty sealed white boxes. Inside the boxes were prizes, ranging from ten centimos to one thousand pesos!

“Gambling is bad,” said Ibarra. “But at the same time, I feel, luck is the smallest miracle. If God wants you to win, then you will win.” He reached into the tumbler and pulled out a wooden plate with a number. “Who has number 9?”

An old farmer hesitantly raised his hand. He was made to go up to the stage. It was humiliating to him, to be the focus of so much attention with his threadbare clothes.

“Tell us about yourself,” Ibarra commanded. He pointed a strange black stick towards the old man’s face.

“I am Mang Botog, and I till a farm around barangay Looban.”

“Are you a tenant farmer or do you own the land?”

The old man shot him a look that said ‘If I owned land, do you think I would be so shabby and weatherbeaten like this?’ “Why, I am a tenant for your lands, Don Crisostomo.”

“I see. Excellent. All right, you see these boxes? Please pick one.”

The old man thought about it, and picked number eight. The girl carrying the box brought the box over to a table nearer the front of the stage, then went back to her place.

“This is how it works. This box could have anywhere between a single centimo to a thousand pesos. When you picked it out, that tested your luck. Now we have fun trying to test your discernment.

I will give you… ten centimos. Do you take the kwarta, or the kahon?”

The band began to sound out a ragged heart-pounding beat.

At the old man’s silent confusion, Ibarra addressed the crowd instead. “How about you? What if you were the one standing here? Help him out! What do you think?”

“Kahon! Kahon!” someone shouted, an Ibarra retainer seeded into the crowd to get them to follow along.

“… Kahon, senor?”

“Good, that’s good,” said Navidad. “That is only obvious.”

“Then I will increase it to… ten centimos!”

The cries from below seemed to spur the old man’s courage. He chose the box again.

“Don Ibarra, for ten centimos, you might as well have been offering a slice of lechon,” added Navidad. To the old man, he whispered “Don’t give up too easily, at least get a week of good food out of Don Crisostomo.”

Ibarra snorted. “Man, why are you even complaining? You do not even eat at my house, we have been troubling Pilosopo Tasio all this time.”

“… Don Crisostomo, that is not something to be proud of. For someone so rich, so you are so cheap sometimes.”

Navidad was brave, to dare to insult his partron! But this was probably part of their comedia.

“Fine then! I will raise it to one peso!” Ibarra shouted.

“The chances are around half and half that you will get a sum higher than one peso” Ibarra admitted. “That could be useful. You have children, grandchildren, yes?  My father was a patron of the school, and as you can see with Mister Navidad here, I am happy to help with talented students who have real interest in becoming eductated.”

A hot flash of pain passed across the old man’s face. “I have… I have no children. I had a daughter… but she married… and she died of cholera.”

He lived in a simple shack with his old wife. His son in law and their family did not wish to have anything more to do with such a poor father-in-law. His milky eyes begged, please do not humiliate me any further! What did I ever do to you?

“One peso is enough,” said Old Botog. “May I go now?”

Ibarra looked unamused. “… no. I ask you to reconsider. I apologize for bring up bad memories. But perhaps this will make things easier for you.”

Navidad more gently said “Don Crisostomo, you should realize that having money means people will be asking you for money. Who has time for that?”

Ibarra nodded somberly. “Mm. Yes. I can see how having money can more trouble than it’s worth. Among these twenty boxes, there’s two chickens, a pig, a horse, and carabao. That’s one in four chances of getting an animal. Isn’t that better?”

”If you have ten pesos, you will have a line of people asking to borrow a peso. If you have a chicken, no one’s going to ask to borrow a chicken,” said Navidad.

“You can certainly borrow some eggs though?”

“And what, be repaid with two eggs?”

“Right, there’s no point in that,” Ibarra waved. “We all already have two eggs. Even you, grandfather, don’t let anyone take your eggs.”

The old man grinned slightly, showing his yellowed horselike teeth, and a smaller ripple of vulgar amusement passed through the crowd. Padre Salvi scowled, but such was the level of humor that appealed to commoners. Ibarra was not doing himself any favors by lowering himself to their level.

“So, in this white box, it could be money, or it could be an animal. While a chicken is not worth a peso, I will give you help to build a chicken coop. Same with the corral for pigs, goats, or a carabao. So, grandfather, what do you think? Kwarta o kahon?

The old man winced as the drums rolled.

Ibarra held up his hand and the band stopped. “Well?”

“… I will take the box, señor .”

“Are you sure? An animal would be good – a pony, while not as good as a carabao, you can rent it out to someone for a small calesa. It is a pity you do not have children with you, this would be a good job to start with. A carabao would be best for your farmwork. But what if you get money? One peso, ten peso, that’s fine. But a hundred pesos? What if you get a thousand? That will only cause trouble! Too much money is trouble!”

“… Don Crisostomo, are you trying to scare people by offering them money now?” Navidad said dryly.

Old Botog chuckled. “I am really very scared, señor!”

“See, teacher? You should respect the wisdom of the aged!” Ibarra turned to the old man again. “Don’t worry about the money. Whether it’s ten or a thousand pesos, I will also be donating twenty percent of a similar sun to the church, and another to the government! It will be taxes-free! If you get a thousand, the church will get two hundred pesos and the guardia two hundred! This is as sin-free money as you can get!

“One more time I will ask you – money or the box?”

“Uh…” The old man looked conflicted. “What do you want me to say?”

Ibarra grinned. “Grandfather, the fun in this whole thing is trying to get you to go one way or the other. So I am increasing the money to five. Five pesos!”

Ibarra lowered his hand and the drums rolled again. The maidens began to chant again “Kaya mo ba to? Kaya mo ba to? Wag magpatalo!” Then stop.

“I guess I will take the money, señor.”

Ibarra nodded sadly. “I can see why. It’s a low enough sum not to be troubling while you can get some comfort out of it.”

He looked off to the distance and then said said suddenly “What if I give you land?”

At seeing no response, he continued “I am serious. It is one thing not to be too greedy in life, but land is land. You are a tenant farmer, you work a hectare of land. I’ll give you another plot of fertile land closer to town. Sell it, farm it, rent it out to someone else, I don’t care.”

“… that is too big a jump from five pesos, Don Crisostomo,” said Navidad.

“Well, no, even I am not that crazy.” Ibarra slapped at the closed box. “Grandfather, you have one in four chances of getting an animal. But you know, you also need room for the bigger animals. If this box here contains an animal, I will give you land. Build a house on it, set it to pasture, raise vegetables, whatever you want. Everyone here is a witness! I will keep my word! Whoever messes with you, messes with me.

“But even in your age, you must have courage. Will you go to sleep easy tonight, going quietly into the dark? Or will you leave a mark on this town?

“So one more time – ”

The chorus and drums began to sound again. The old man looked away from Ibarra and down at the waiting townsfolk. Some were shouting “Kahon! Kahon! Kahon!

As Ibarra bid the band and the maidens to stop, he asked again – “Money or the box?”

“I… aah… I don’t know. I don’t know!”

“Grandfather, you are old enough that the only thing you should care about is being more comfortable in the twilight of your life. Let young people be greedy. But know this – at every age, one’s life can change. A small sum of money can be good for a week, but with land people will be nicer to you wondering to whom you should leave it.

“That’s the power of inheritance. We are all children of the soil. Land is power.”

“Take the box!” the people were shouting. “Don’t be a coward, Botog!” and “If you get a thousand pesos, lend me some money!” The old man began to laugh weakly.

 “I… I will take the box, señor.”

“Are you sure? I will ask you again. Do not let regrets rule your life.”

The old man took a deep breath. “I am sure this time. I will take the box.”

Ibarra raised his hand, and the band began to pound at their drums again. “Last chance. Do not take this unless you are ready for your life to change. Even I have no idea what is in this box.”

Old Botog made the sign of the cross over his face and steeled himself as if facing execution. “I am ready. Whatever happens… whatever…”

“Fine! Then let us see what you are getting!” The snare drums went into an exciting drum roll. Ibarra slowly began to open the box.

And then he stopped. “All right, I lied,” he said mournfully. ”Giving up land is fine for me, but a thousand pesos would still hurt. Are you sure about this, Old Botog?”

“Have courage, Don Crisostomo!” Navidad shouted.

The old man hesitantly opened his mouth “… aaaah…”

“Too late!” Ibarra yelled. The drums resumed, he opened the box, reached in and brought out… a wooden plate with a painting of a chicken!

“You get a chicken!”

People began screaming.

“Also, an ektarya of land,” Ibarra added. “Congratulations.”

“Don Crisostomo… Don Crisostomo!” the old man began to blubber out. “I will die, do not joke with me like this, Don Crisostomo!”

Ibarra slapped the old man’s shoulders. “Worry none about it. You worked for my father. If you are good to me, I will be good to you. That is how things work. My friend Simoun has the deed to the land, please go to him later.”

“Don Crisostomo, thank you! You are a saint!”

Padre Salvi grit his teeth.

“Haha, no, no I am not. I am not so kind. I am not one to forget an insult but not also one to forget loyalty. Give your thanks to Maria Clara, because she exists then I am kind! I am only doing as she wants to see. But to anyone who disrespect this kindness, the kindness done in her name, I will be as the devil himself!”

Wait, so your whole reason for showing off is simply to show off? Truly Don Crisostomo was a young fool! But the peasantry laughed, and no longer looked for the hidden traps of behind his generosity. For he was a young fool in a love, and a man in love was capable of anything.

‘He admits it! He admits it and they applaud!’ Padre Salvi snarled and turned away. Truly the road to damnation was easy, and paved with money. The little game continued, but the young priest had no further stomach for it.

Tonight Padre Damaso would make the sermon, and visitors were paying up to three hundred pesos for the privilege of hearing him speak. Salvi’s mind was already awhirl constructing the homily he would make after the older priest leaves his parish. For a whole week he would harangue them all about the wages of sin!

-x-

Padre Salvi sat down before Padre Damaso, his face still a mask of rage. “He admits it!” he shouted at the ill fat man.

“Who…?”

“That Ibarra! He admits to doing the devil’s work on this Earth! He is trying to buy favors… how despicable! How vulgar! Such… naked lack of morals!”

“Tell me what happened, Bernardo. It must be exceptionally vile indeed to see you so out of sorts.”

And after Padre Salvi recounted the events at the town center, Damaso said “Such a fool! The peasants will say whatever you want to say as long as you flash them coin! You cannot buy their loyalty! They will mob him, beggars will camp at his doorstep. What he will suffer for this imprudence, I almost pity him.”

 “Padre Damaso, this cannot be allowed. The danger to their morals- he is tempting them away from the light of the church. The devil himself!”

The fat friar nodded. “Be at ease, Bernardo. I can see it. Ibarra must soon die.”


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4.2 Fraternal Sins

I know very well that no leaf on tree may stir save at the will of the Creator; since he asks that I die in this place, His Holy Will be done.
-last words of Fr. Mariano Gomez

But I haven’t committed any crime!
-last words of Fr. Jose Burgos


“You speak like you expect to solve everything with money, Don Crisostomo.”

“Heavens no! I expect to solve things with the things that matter, which is everything except money. But if my ways drive people to think that they must control my flow of wealth in order to control me, it will be too late for them to realize how wrong they are about the real dangers.”

“Your diatribe last night about the United States of America and its ability to claim the next century belies your words.”

“The Americans are stupidly rich, but more than that they are immensely motivated. The Ottoman Empire is old, and fat, and in its demise will birth a litter of children with more wealth than sense, who will piss away the wealth of their lands in pointless wars and ostentatious displays.”

“What wealth? Even I know there’s nothing there but sand and camels. ”

“Black gold. Oil. In some way I thank that we do not have such a convenient source of national income, for it forces us to seek wealth in diverse endeavors.”

Although… I suppose after a hundred years it does help to jump-start economic diversification, if not to make it easier to paper over social issues. Oh, I am conflicted now. It is still only 1887… we can certainly try to press our claim to Sabah. Rizal himself attempted to emigrate there with his whole clan to create a Filipino enclave under British rule. Probably not worth it due to a majority Christian nation trying to press a claim to a majority Muslim kingdom, but that’s British North Borneo’s problem.

There’s few things to pick up a loyal Spanish citizen than the knowledge you’re doing something to inconvenience some fecking Englishmen by your mere existence this morning.

“For someone who claims not to value wealth, you certainly seem to extol its virtues overmuch,” Elias interrupts my thoughts, grabs me by a sleeve, and prevents me from walking into a ditch.

“I have Keynes and Friedman in the brain, I cannot help it.” (‘Cain is a freed man?’ Elias mouths out dubiously.) I cough and gesture with my cane to the coconut trees planted alongside the road. “Wealth is access to resources, this is true, and resources are tangible proofs. But wealth is also generated by the expectation and desire for these resources. Only fiat currency is capable of wealth generation on such scales; disentangled from the precious metal standard, which only have value in so far of their rarities and shininess; a representation of people’s future wants. A potato is literally more valuable in objective terms.

“Economists are literally magicians, it is by how we all simply pretend that theirs is a science that anything in world economics is repeatable phenomena. Wealth is not that important for the revolution, but it is all-important for everything after. Ah, we have arrived.”

It is early in the morning and we are having breakfast in Don Anastasio’s house.

Old Tasio’s servant does not hesitate anymore to allow me to simply barge in. It is in fact too early in the morning, it barely even bright out. My own servants are perhaps feeling a bit insulted that I don’t dine in my own house as much, and scandalized that I am preferring to do so in a house with an unmarried woman. Is it her cooking, and her other common points, that I’m after?

Elias remarks as we cross the threshold, “You give too much in answers to simple questions. I can see now why you might prefer the company of the town’s other known breathless commentator.”

Old Tasio blurts out on seeing me “Don Crisostomo! What happened to your face?!”

Oh. Right. I touch the bandage still pressed over my broken nose. “Elias happened to my face.”

“That infamous outlaw? Where and when did you encounter him?”

“Where, my great-grandfather’s grave. When? I am still encountering him.” I point to beside me. “Don Anastasio, I am pleased to introduce to you, the man known as Elias.”

Elias bows. “Good morning, Don Anastasio. Please forgive our intrusion. I will not apologize for my fist meeting Don Crisostomo’s face. It was well-deserved, I assure you.”

“I can believe that. You have punched him in the face, so must have proven him wrong. It is about time-”

I interrupted “I only said that being proven wrong was emotionally equivalent to being punched in the face. Do you people not realize I have not actually punched anybody in the face since I have arrived? Don Anastasio, you should have left behind you a mountain of men beaten into unconsciousness!”

“Ah, how I miss those quiet days when it was I that would go into other people’s houses to become a nuisance to their sensibilities.” He sighs and rubs at the bridge of his nose. “Don Crisostomo. Why.”

“Why what?”

“Why anything.”

“Well, our friend Elias said that he has felt the Lord’s touch upon him many times, that he has lived many times before when he should not. So I said everything possible to get him to kill me, and I am still here! Obviously the hand of the Lord was upon us both! The angels have stayed his blade.”

The old man turned from me towards Elias, and even more plaintively asked “Mister Elias. Why?”

“… it has occurred to me that before I can save our nation from the priests, I may first need to save it from Don Crisostomo.”

“We have all had that thought at some point. Be welcome in my house at all times, young man! What I have is yours.”

“I thank you, Don Anastasio. Your trust fills me with the greatest happiness. I shall protect your home and all you hold dear with the last breath left in my humble body.”

“Yes, despite our differences, it seems we have found… as a certain someone says… a common interest. No, I had better say: a common predicament! I hesitate not to call you a brother in this.”

“I brought dried squid?” I mention as a peace offering.

-x-

 “But I must confess there is another reason that we have decided to have this discussion at your house, Don Anastasio. We have come to consult with you.”

“Oh what could it be apart from the lack of eager ears and swifter mouths?” the old man replies archly. “If you wish counsel for your works, I must first advise you – my bones are old, and I have little desire to see violence.”

“I believe that violence must in time come, for a soul long held down must at last break free, but I too must confess neither do I relish its approach,” says Elias. “If reform can stay the pains of a people clamoring for change, then I welcome this as well.”

Tasio replies: “If you, the youth, speak of revolution, then know that we have seen so many of them rise and fail before. We are not a country united, for in as much as you may find the abuses of the powerful cause the hapless to gnash his teeth in rage, many more are frightened of tyrannical force, or admire it and long to use it against their own enemies, and ape the mannerisms of their superiors.”

I respond: “The issue is Justice. When Britain conquered Manila in the year, and held the city and by default the rest of the country for two years with Spain unable to respond due to the clear superiority of the British Royal Navy, were not people astounded to see a court and justice system actually functional? For the first time ever in these isles, the officers gave no special favor for the wealthy or the influential. Theirs was a separate society, unwilling to compromise with the local culture. They gave no respect to the priests, that their claim to speak to the spiritual and moral should ever give them any extra voice to the legal.”

“They are Englishmen, after all,” Old Tasio muses with a smile. “Heretics.”

“The Church of England aside, in here we might see how we might reform the justice system. The courts must not be easily influenced, the judges should care more for evidence than oratory. They must not have a rooster in the game.

“The severity of punishment rarely a deterrence to crime. People in the grip of passion rarely think of the future, while those who deliberately seek to commit crimes believe they simply will not be caught. Specially in this society of ours, where there are too many lawyers and priests can get away with anything.”

I nod towards Elias. “I see that look in your eyes. And yet, one might say, there is one notable event where priests were punished with death.”

“Gomburza…” Elias breathed.

I nod. “And their crime was not rape, nor murder, nor larceny – but sedition.”

 Old Tasio gives out a burdened sigh. “I wish you would not speak of these things in this house. I have no spirit left in me for these things, you are young men; you will all do as you will in the end.”

“Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora, the three priests implicated in the Cavite Mutiny. And yet, for all that, they might as well have been unconnected with each other.”

“Many people believe that they died as martyrs to the cause of reform,” Elias notes. “What do you truly know of their affairs?”

“Then-Governor Izquierdo magnified the situation of mere 200 soldiers mutinying over the loss of their promised privileges (such as the exemption to the tributes and polos y servicios and the loss of their pension), and the prohibition of the founding of school of arts and trades for the Filipinos, which the general believed as a cover-up for the organization of a political club; all into an uprising against Spain. Those poor souls in 1872 expected support which did not come, mistaking fireworks in the city as the sounds of other soldiers rising in revolt.

But what makes their execution a strong cause is that the priests tagged as the masterminds of the mutiny were innocent. It was but the word of one captive that implicated them, easily given under torture and promise of clemency. History makes of them revolutionaries at a time when their greatest sin was being too popular as voices for reform. Yet they were priests; and they died; the clergy devours its own. If they even were not safe from death, then no one is. This is message conveyed to all future dissidents.”

 “Are you not afraid then, of suffering the same fate?” Old Tasio asks. “I am old enough that the thought of leaving this world no longer frightens me as much as it should, for this reason I have not protested much your bringing this talk under my roof. What pessimism I can spare I have already surrendered in the light of the sheer blinding hubris that dares display itself before my eyes.”

 “I am not afraid for the simple reason that sedition is a crime, and as such as a future criminal I either do not believe that I will be caught or will be able to escape or mitigate the consequences of my actions. I shall fight for my accomplices greater than I would care for my own fate; fear not, for you shall have the exit strategy that I may not use for myself.

“Elias, I do not place much faith in a people’s court, for more they shall be prone to emotion – all who care called will be presumed guilty already, as we have seen in the Terror of Revolutionary France. The presumption of innocence and the right to a lawyer by all persons, with a prosecution that is driven by evidence and not political expedience, is the foundation of democracy that protects the people. But this requires a strong central government and men who are strong against corruption. And a strong central government requires a strong foundation.”

“Thus we return to your idea that we do require wealth before you will allow us to revolt.” Elias scoffs.

“Where do you think to take the money for such a noble enterprise?” asks Old Tasio.

“The priests have them, thousands of pesos they bedeck themselves and their domiciles, thousands of pesos in festivals and donations and masses they demand, woe be to the immortal souls of the poor who cannot pay! They shall be consigned to hell for their impiety, but in its fear they have already made their everyday lives a little bit of a hell.”

Old Tasio shakes his head. “I object to this.”

“For what reason, Don Anastasio? Do you think that the people will suddenly become impious or disorderly without the fear of the priests and their impunity of action hanging over them?”

“No, I object because such a wealth as you wish to seize only looks vast through the years of veneration. Take them all at once, and people will fear to give again; you cannot kill the bull twice. I understand Don Crisostomo’s view in this. What you seek is taxation.”

“But people, as a rule, are loath to pay taxes.” I turn to Elias and say “A revolution to succeed must involve all of the country, otherwise it is an arrogance forcing us to conquer our own brothers, declaring their direction of their lives for them. Elias, I understand your grievances, but is what the people ask for freedom, or is it justice?”

 “Without freedom, there can be no justice. The powerless and the powerful must be judged as the same under God! The more you ask us to delay, the more poor folk die under the lash; they are hauled off in the polos y servicios to work as little more than slaves, for though the law says they should be paid for the labor in public works, they are barely even fed! Women are taken by whoever fancies them, the rich grow richer while the poor suffer forevermore!

“To wait is only to your benefit, Don Crisostomo! Justice will not wait, sir!”

“If that is all you want, then you might as well wear a black mask in the night and wreak your dark vengeance!” I blink. “Wait. That… huh.

“Now that I think about it, while it would not work for me, that might work for you…

“I mean, we are both orphans. And for wealth as a superpower, I can handle that for you just fine…”

“Señor Ibarra…”

 “Leave him be, Elias. He will come out of this fugue on his own. He does this sometimes.”

“Some sort of… dark knight. No, not even that. We are after all a Spanish colony…. ”

-x-

After some time, Old Tasio asks “Have you come to your senses, Don Crisostomo?”

“Don Anastasio, I would like to posit a notion so basic to my beliefs that you might find nonsensical or heretical. That a nation has a soul.”

“It appears you have not.”

“Hear me out! And not in the sense of the collective lives of its people, or its culture, or its lands and history – but in something more, in the crossing of all of these, something inextricably and evidently its own. Existent and separate. Often times dormant, but sometimes can fill its people with a powerful resolve. Invisible yet tangible all through recorded history. It is a spirit born of mankind, but nonetheless divine – for the breath of life that God placed in us is one we can share with our works.

“Our lives, our loves, our passions! In time these will end. But as our loins beget children, our actions and longings beget history. Cultures shape other cultures, thought begets thought – and in the crossing of these forces, the dream becomes real.

“Elias, we have not finished our discussion from last night. Don Anastasio, to you I also ask; for this is a question that must first be resolved before any hope of reform or revolution can succeed.

“Are we a nation? Does this Philippines have a soul?

Elias stares at me with that dark penetrating gaze of his. The pains of his past and the cries of the present cannot be wiped clean by any amount of pretty words. His fingers drum upon the table. His purpose remains sure, but he has admitted last night that he has no clear answer.

Old Tasio leans back askance. “What a bizarre question!” he answers after a few moments in deep thought. “I could even say farcical, for to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ can be argued endlessly. You have not even defined just how it is that a nation is born. How and when does a nation acquire its soul after its formation, what are the rituals of its affirmation; or is it simply a matter of recognition by other nations, a gift to be granted rather than achieved? Or does the existence of this soul presage its birth, the driving force to say ‘the time is right’? What more for nations departed and slain? The human soul is eternal, nations demonstrably not.”

“Through blood and fire a nation is born,” says Elias. “Always has this been, you must sacrifice in order to bring together a people; without the pains of birth, a nation will find itself weak of character.”

“Before Spain, we were a collection of fragments borne of individual tribes and petty kingdoms. We are Tagologs, Ilocanos, Visayas, people of different provinces and different tongues first before all. Spain’s dominance, there a rose the cry of regions and factions opposing Spanish rule, and pirates and foreign invaders attempting to seize dominion, but ultimate all of them failed. What sort of soul could be born from that?

“If our Philippines has a soul, then it is as a daughter of Spain!” exclaims Old Tasio.

“I agree,” and I lean forward to speak “Yet there are ways of peaceably gaining nationhood. Take Canada, for example. They exercise great latitude in their own affairs while officially owing fealty to the British Crown. One might imagine in time, that for ease of taxation and infrastructure, the Empire quietly lets them go to be their own nations to pay for their own works and armies that could still be volunteered to serve their parent.

“If the English had ever really decided to take control of the Philippines in 1762-1764 rather than sit pretty over their command of the countryside only within range of Fort Santiago’s guns, if the direct military aid promised by the British to Diego Silang had ever materialized, how would a new hundred years shape her character?”

“Yes, and though we may have felt betrayed and unvalued, to be cast off from Mother Spain would not create a new soul, if one were to imagine it. Are we a nation? This can be answered. We are not, we are a colony of Spain. Does this nation have a soul? Only you the youth who believe so can answer that!”

“I believe it,” Elias breathes out. We turn to look at him; and slumps to rest his elbows on the table, bringing his hands together to lace his fingers in an arch under his nose. “Don Crisostomo knows too many things, he is the greatest danger to the success of the revolution. The things he knows can harm so many of the innocent and the unwitting; if he were an evil man, the power he could amass would be more than considerable.”

“Yet you let him live, so it seems you do not think so,” Old Tasio replies. “But why do you entertain his fantasy of a nation-soul? He is perhaps knowledgeable, and in ways that are trustworthy, but Don Crisostomo,” here he turns to me briefly “forgive my callous and yet frankly cautionary words,” and back to Elias “is demonstrably also sometimes a lunatic. Were it not so that I realize how even the failure of his plan would help him more, I could think he wants to get shot at Bagumbayan.”

Bagumbayan being, of course, that section of Luneta Park where executions are carried out. There the three priests Gomburza died of garotte, and where Rizal himself would die by firing squad.

“Excuse me, honored sage! For I am also filthy, filthy rich,” I huff. “The word for this is eccentric.”

Old Tasio raises his hands. “Demonstrably.”

Elias glances at me. I shrug.

“Don Crisostomo did not convince me with words. He threatened, he postured, and when that did not suffice he used sheer naked force.”

Uh, Elias, could you phrase that a little better?

“In those dark woods I have been made to confront how a person’s choices might affect far more than just those around him, causing pain that through generations. His great-grandfather has caused mine a great injustice, but could I not in my callousness become an abuser to an orphaned child in return? It is easy to call for revolution when you are not the one who will die from it; I hold no such fear, but as a leader of men it will be my decision to make fathers die and families wither on the vine.

“Don Crisostomo is insistent on this point; I must lead! In truth, he is not the first. Already the leadership of a band has been offered to me after is founder goes off to fight and die satisfied for his vengeance. What next? Happy are those who die; those who come after them bear the burden of creating the nation. I have been given a glimpse of how he sees the world. We are a web of choices, and I no longer have the luxury of treating my own decisions as insignificant beyond the reach of my arms.”

I say “If you fight, people will suffer.”

He says “Suffering must end.”

I say “The ends cannot justify the means, we cannot be the evil we claim to fight. A revolution that never stops fighting becomes in the end merely bandits and thieves, the enemy of the people.”

“We must fight for the people’s benefit, not our own. Every death has meaning only if it saves the people from further misery,” he concludes. “Don Crisostomo, what must a revolution have for it to succeed? Is it wealth? Do you ask us to delay in order to amass arms and support?”

“No, the revolution is unavoidable. What you simply need is time, the right time to prevent Spain from landing twenty thousand troops and artillery to suppress yet another revolt; to prevent again using the Pampangans against the Batangueño, the Tagalogs against the Bisaya, or to ignore the Moro as a Filipino.

“Elias, the success of the revolution is inevitable! But even when we win, tell me, with all the resources we have available, what is there to prevent us from being conquered by a foreign nation again?”

“Our valor, the defeat of the European power will make others think twice.” Here Elias paused. “This is what I would like to say, but… as much as I believe you think in too grand scales that you miss the real reason why our people wish to revolt, I cannot fault that you wish only the best for our country. What is your solution, then?”

”Our ancestors fought with valor too, and they died. Because they were men with swords and shields against guns and cannons. Even if we throw off Spain, she is the weakest of the Great Powers. It means little.

We must first become united, to galvanized as a people from shore to shore, from island to island, that Spain must either come to understand that she must treat us as equals – as citizens of Spain with all rights, or we will leave her to wither on the vine! To do this, it is important that the people know that they are not alone – that their suffering is shared by other citizens, no longer merely Kapampangan or Cebuano, or Tsino and Indio, Insulares and mestizo, that all who are born and live on these islands are Filipino!

“In short, I ask that you give me at least five years. Three years to open the eyes of our people, two more years to see the wave of opinion and how the nations around us would be willing to recognize the existence of our nation.”

I reach into the satchel I had brought with me and lay down before them two books. It is a simple black book with gold-embossed title. RIZAL. “1888, 1889, 1900, one book every year. This is my solution. Against guns and cannon, paper is stronger still.”

And even stronger are pictures and motion pictures; I did not add. Soon enough it will be all made clear.

-x-

A little while later, teacher Navidad has come. “Don Crisostomo, what happened to your face!” he exclaims upon ascending the stairs leading up to the sala.

“Elias happened to my face,” I blandly answer him. “By the way, might I introduce you to my friend Simoun?”

“Simoun?” Elias echoes with a frown, as he looks up from the novel. Old Tasio is nodding, completely engrossed with the text, as if having a conversation with its characters.

“Simoun,” I repeat. “I trust Mister Navidad, but he is somewhat of an excitable sort.” I turn back to the teacher and smile. “Let us leave these two to their reading. Come, oh gallant instructor! Let us go forth and work our magic upon town!”

-x-

-x-

That was yesterday.

Let me ask you this, what sort of fool sets off a fireworks display at five-thirty in morning? Filipinos do. And it is not even in celebration or to wake people up for the morning mass. The fireworks are set off in the approach of the early morning procession.[*] Screw all those infidels who want to sleep in.

People march around town singing hymns behind a statue of the Virgin Mary, for it is the eleventh of December and it is the Feast Day of Our Lady of Peace. It is celebrated by the Confraternity of the Holy Rosary. Between this day and tomorrow, the feast day of San Diego celebrated by the Third Order of Laymen of the Franciscans, there is somewhat of a competition in piety.

It is still dark outside. Yesterday several raised platforms were set up around town in the path of the procession. The fireworks were to be set off from these platforms – how convenient then, that someone had decided to place field cameras on the platforms as well, that a picture might be taken at the same time the fireworks illuminate the crowd.

And it is such a crowd, for though they were required to wake up at around four in the morning, it seems half the town is here. They will be obliged to do this again later tonight for the nine o’clock mass to conclude the Holy Mother’s Feast Day. The more uncomfortable it is, the greater piety, and because it is too dark to see the finery you wear, the greater pious rewards – no one might claim you are here simply to fulfill your rote duty, to be seen and respected. This is also why the crowd seems to be mainly women.

Pop. Pop. Go the fireworks. Click, I push the shutter up for half a second, click, back the shutter goes. A photographer must have the proper timing, for too much exposure of the dry plate would give a blurry image. From beneath the black mantle covering my head, shoulders, and the back of the camera, I pull out the sealed box containing the dry photographic plate, and insert another. I take another exposure, this time in the dimmer light only of the lamps around the platform and the paper lanterns of the townsfolk.

And then it is only time to pull back the lens and the bellows of the Anthony Fairy Camera into the box and direct a servant to bring it to my house. Beside me, Teacher Navidad yawns. We must now race ahead of the procession into the next platform.

The solution I have found to the bulkiness of this era’s cameras is simply to have multiple cameras pre-positioned to take photos of the events of the fiesta. I did not need to fear someone stealing away my cameras, for the other young scions of the town had volunteered the manpower of their servants to stand guard overnight in exchange for future goodwill. Unlike our fathers, we have not yet taken the time to turn small insults into lifelong enmities.

The servants are all invited to my house after standing guard for a sumptuous breakfast, of course. My own employees actually seem a mite annoyed that I haven’t been taking advantage of this pseudo-feudal authority I have, it looks to them as if I do not trust them or something. So, the more work I have them do the happier they are, which is a truly strange paradox considering how much Filipinos love to avoid work in this era.

As we walk briskly, I say “I am surprised you would be so willing to assist me this far, this early in the morning, Mister Juliano. As you have mentioned, you do not work for me. I am not paying you for anything.”

“It is all in the instruction of Don Anastasio. You need someone with you at all times.”

Ah. I nod. And of course, the teacher holds the sage in the highest regards. It is almost like that old chinese saying ‘a teacher for a day, a father for a lifetime’. “You both are exaggerating. My whims are not that dangerous, nor am I so constantly imprudent.”

Navidad shakes his head sadly. “No, it is because… Don Anastasio says, that you have no friends. You need someone you can trust, not someone you can pay off.”

I wince. “That hurts me,” I respond sardonically. “Mostly because it is true.” I am a stranger even to myself. My country no longer knows me. I fear rejection from all corners; Maria Clara had already rejected me once. I sigh. “May I call you a friend, then?”

The teacher chuckles lightly. “It would be an honor, Don Crisostomo, even though I fear you will lead me to Bagumbayan. Your enthusiasm is contagious, sir. I wonder how it is that you can perceive the world with so much delight in the midst of its pains and unfairness? So much so that it makes us want to see the world the same way you do! I too wish to see this tomorrow you speak of so brightly.”

I grin widely. “Break through, good man, break through! It is not something we can realize without effort.”

To have friends, be a friend, that is how the saying goes. I remain somewhat of an introvert, being all this cheery and active is exhausting. But the truth of that saying is actually – to have a friend, be genuine. You could have supporters if you keep telling them only what they want to hear, but they will turn on you when you fail to live up to the idea of you they have in their head. To have a friend, all you have to do is to articulate it – to say it – and make it real.

Will you be my friend?

Actions don’t speak louder than words, in this instance. Humans need to know for sure before we can trust it. It is saddest to me that the world of politics and high society is full of doublespeak and claims of friendship that mean nothing.

We walk along the dirt road, beside the masses humble in their devotions. As we pass them I belt out the cant “Aaaave! Aaaaave! Aaaave Maaariiia! Saaalve! Saalve! Salve, Regina!” Hail Mary, Hail Mary! Save us, Our Queen!

The world is full of misery, we cry out for salvation and mercy. But if we can stay strong, and just endure through these two decades, it will be worth it.

The world is cruel! The world is amazing! There is greatness waiting for you! Humility is rewarded, charity shall bear fruit! You walk in darkness now, but the dawn comes, and even then there is truth remaining in the shadows. The dark is not something to fear. Those who dare step out into the unknown shall walk with the saints. Carry your faith into the next century, my people. It is a more powerful thing than you might think!

I hum:

Huwag kang mangamba, (Don’t be afraid)
Mangalig ka, (Keep your faith)
Darating din ang umaga- (Come soon will the morn)

I do not want to walk past this road, into the falseness of the world of the so-called the powerful. The greatest of monsters are those who shine brightest in the light. Save us, Oh Maria!

“Don Crisostomo!”

I turn to the shout, to see a young woman gaily waving her fan at me, only to be sharply shushed by her elderly aunt. It is Sinang, Maria Clara’s friend. I doff my hat and bow at her. I point off towards Capitan Tiago’s house. She nods back. Yes, Maria Clara waits.

“Cheerful girl!” I comment to Navidad as we pass the procession towards the next platform in front of the church. “Would that our women be symbolized more like her; unafraid to be seen as silly, opinionated, adaptable!”

“I thought you were enamored with Maria Clara?” the teacher responds.

“Maria Clara is my one and only! But as much as I want to protect her and hold her true, the sampaguita, the jasmine flower, comes in purple too. Pure and chaste white fits our values for our national flower, but a purple sampaguita is just more active. I want a daughter that is unafraid and will be able to fight men in their arena of the mind.”

Maria Clara’s grace, and my intellect, and pampered by her Aunt Sinang’s lack of shame; let us raise the perfect politician!

Wait. Is that not just Miriam Defensor-Santiago?

“So you have thought even so far, Señor Ibarra.” Navidad murmurs. “Always about the nation. Always thinking on a higher level…”

That is terrifying!


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Interlude: The Chosen 01

A fugitive always had to mind the feeling of being watched. Elias had such a preternatural sense of it that he could walk through the middle of town with no one the wiser. He did not rely on any disguises any more complicated than a workman’s salakot on his head.

He had a handsome face, with long hair and a light mustache, but easily it could transform from striking to slovenly. Gone was the arrogant stride of a pampered youth, now he walked with the tread of an old man weighed down by regrets. With a shift of a shoulder he could intimidate brigands into choosing better prey, or become so beaten down like one the peasant masses that might as well have been invisible.

Yet for the past two days he had the lingering feeling of being watched. From the moment of waking, to deciding to sleep; be it in town or sneaking through the jungle; his uneasiness inflamed itself. In the end he felt it was best to leave San Diego for some time.

However, a gentleman does not leave a lady to worry. A young lass waited for him every day in her little home by the lake. If he left without saying farewell to Salome. it would pain her with the fear if he has died, or worse, simply grown bored with her. It was well she was being called to live with her relatives in Mindoro, for being associated with him put her in danger.

He was known to the people of San Diego as ‘the pilot’, a quiet but skilled navigator driving a boat through the not-so-calm waters of Laguna de Bay and the twisty bends of the Pasig River with but a single oar. Laguna de Bay was not a very big lake, yet it was large enough that pirates would attack steamboats. Small boats transporting goods were rarely attacked, for lake bandits preferred coin and jewels to having to sell vegetables.

At the moment he beached his boat into a secluded cove in order to proceed to Salome’s house, a young boy with a strange stunted-looking dog crossed his path, stepping silently out of the tall grass. There was something eerie in that child’s little smile.

“Señor Elias, you are the chosen one!” said the child. “Come with me. There things you must know.”

-x-

Elias could have ignored the child as typical of their overdramatic antics, were it not for his next words. Words that now brought him into this fetid lonely little nook in the woods. Now Ibarra bid the boy to leave, but Elias had no confidence that the boy would not be a witness to anything that may transpire. However, that would not prevent him from doing what must be done.

“Interesting. So you are the man they call Elias.” Ibarra stood up and raised his lantern high. It exposed his broad face and narrow nose, features handsome yet average, were it not for the eerie intensity of his gaze glinting under the dark hollow of raised brows. With his black suit it was difficult to pick him out from the gloom, leaving him akin to a macabre floating head.

He said: “All this time I had assumed that the man Elias would be older and more capable than myself, but it seems you are actually a bit younger. This certainly makes your… relationship… with that lass Salome, who is sixteen years of age, fair less disquieting.”

Elias, by contrast, had powerful physique and handsome features scarcely hidden by his old worn camisa de chino. “One more threat, Señor Ibarra, just one more in her direction, and only one of us shall be leaving this forest alive!” Elias retorted.

Ibarra recoiled. “Peace, my good man, peace! I certainly did not mean it as a threat, I apologize.”

“Is it not, señor? When your messenger said that not even Mindoro would be beyond your reach, you must have known I had no choice but to come here. He said I must follow in order to save a life, how could I run from such coercion? I fear nothing from men, but to stoop this low is vile, and I will not forgive it.”

Elias grit his teeth. Ibarra certainly was cunning, to use this information against him. As a fugitive he was well used to being chased, and moving from place to place. He had no home, but his attachment Salome was as much a danger to her as it was a weakness. He was no man to run while someone who cares for him so much is left in danger by mere association. There were so many terrible things that could be done to a young unmarried girl caught alone.

His own twin sister’s fate was proof enough of that. He had come to San Diego in the first place of the news that she had been found, now but a lovely corpse with a dagger stuck in her breast, after a flood in the rice fields bordering the shore.

“Aaah. That.” Ibarra shook his head and sighed. He put down his lantern after moving closer and sitting upon the stone fence. “Basilio has much less sensibility compared to his brother, or perhaps just some naughtiness in him, to parrot my words so literally. No, it is not a threat, but a truth. That boy – you might not yet believe it, but you will come to appreciate what it means. He has a unique power to find anyone, anywhere, at any time. Run from him no matter how far in the world, with that dog by his side no one can hide.”

Ibarra then shrugged. “It has its limitations, of course, he has to know either the full name or the face of the person, but this is no fantasy. After we talk things over, I invite you to test his ability.”

Elias scowled. “And so this is a power that works for you? I am not sure if I believe it, but let that be as it may. What do you want, Señor Ibarra?” Tell me your demands, that Salome may be safe from you. Tell me your demands, that I may know if it is best for all to simply slay you right here, as we stand as equals.

“Why, the same as what you have been told. I begged you to come and meet me here in secret, in order that you might save a life. My life, of course.”

Naturally, he responded, “I make no such promises.”

Ibarra opened his arms and bowed. “You are too suspicious of me, and that is my fault. I apologize. Please, only hear me out.”

Elias, still scowling and ready to draw his bolo, approached and lightly leaned against a standing boulder. Between the two men stood, in silent vigil, a stone angel above a closed and vine-encrusted mausoleum.

“Before we begin, I must tell you a little about my family. Were you aware that my father had been arrested for slaying a Spanish official, then held for false charges of heresy and sedition? He was well loved in town, and his arrest and death led to the removal of the town’s previous parish priest. Padre Damaso, whom people claim you have manhandled along the road.”

Elias said nothing, for if it was Ibarra’s intent to force a confession it would take more than that. The young man continued “Do you believe in justice? Is it even possible for justice to be granted, if not perfectly, then at least evenly? How can there be justice for both the poor and the powerless?

I ask you this, because what happened to my father is not justice – he died alone in his cell, and yet also not justice in the sense that he committed murder and would have not have been prosecuted at all for his role in the death of a man in saving a child (though if it had been just that, in a court of Britain or America perhaps he would have been acquitted or given a light sentence since it was accidental) but not so as long has he drawn the ire of the powerful and the greedy, ready to lay false charges. The charge of heresy alone dooms a man who fails to attend church, or the inability to produce a cedula for one who must still work. An arrest can always be made for anyone who draws the ire of the powerful.”

Ibarra clacked his tongue. “No, I ask you this, because our justice system in this land simply does not function. The rot is deep. The pus cannot be drained, the limb cannot be amputated, we must rewrite the laws and the culture of laws entirely.”

“Unlike your father, you do speak of sedition,” Elias replied carefully. For Ibarra was one of the powerful, and thus his words cannot be trusted as the truth. Honor was a thing many claimed, but little possessed by those who most professed it. “But in answer to your question, no, I do not believe that there can be man’s justice. I believe in only God’s justice.”

Ibarra raised both hands. “But then how do you get God’s justice? Is it enough to wait and hope that in time God will account for all in all balance? In olden times they had trial of ordeals, in which a defendant is subject to an unpleasant or dangerous experience. Trial by combat, trial by fire, trial by water, by cross, by poison, by boiling oil!

If they survived, or if their injuries healed, it was considered a sign of innocence. But is this reliance on miracles truly a way to find justice? Or will it not advantage the fit, the healthy, the swift, the lucky? Is the hand of god to be seen the same in the gambler’s dice as it is on the court of fire? Must we therefore believe in accidents?”

“Believing in accidents is like believing in miracles; both presuppose that that God does not know the future. What is an accident? An event that no one has at all foreseen. What is a miracle? A contradiction, an overturning of natural laws. Lack of foresight and contradiction in the Intelligence that rules the machinery of the world indicate two great defects.

But you misunderstand what I mean, for I too know what is written, that Jesus said ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God’’!”

“There is a place in the desert called Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, because they tested the LORD, saying, ‘Is the LORD among us, or not?’” Ibarra added.

“You also know your scripture well, sir. The scripture is not a shield to hide behind nor a sword to use against your enemies. When a priest condemns a man to death, he is no better. I say only this: when a man condemns others to death or destroys their future forever he does it with impunity and uses the strength of others to execute his judgments, which after all may be mistaken or erroneous.

I say to you: let God be the sole judge among men, let Him be the only one to have the right over life, let no man ever think to take His place!”

Ibarra stood up and opened his palm towards Elias. He moved it in a circle as if wiping a window. “If this is about the death penalty, then we both agree. Let me ask you something then, in theory.

Let us say that a man encounters a priest on the road. Why would such a man choose to strike down a priest, and yet in his anger choose not to kill said priest? If such a man of God is a hypocrite and liar, then why not just kill him and prevent him from causing more harm to others? Is it because such a man has decided that to kill with his hands, in a situation of unequal power, is to exert his own judgement above God?”

Elias raised his left hand to his face and clenched his fist. “A man might strike down a priest to see if one who speaks for God has truly the right to claim the life of another, may God strike down such a man for his impunity! Let even a priest be exposed to the same peril he prepares for others, may God smite them both down!”

“… and nothing happened.”

“A man like that regrets having done such a thing. It proved nothing but his the strength of his own fists, there was no justice there.”

“Considering how many priests and missionaries are killed and perhaps eaten by savages, and many saints die of painful martyrdom, it should be clear enough that God exerts no special protection for his clergy. The ones who display the least virtue are the ones that are the safest, one might even say. ”

“Humiliation may strike deeper than physical injury, for it cannot be spun as a sacrifice. It is the only thing that can touch him now.” Elias retorted, though it was clear in his tone he recognized he was searching for anything positive from the pitiful ordeal. Perhaps he grated against his principles in the end. The worst that could ever happen to a priest for his misdeeds is to be transferred to another parish, where no one might know he was a rapist. “I have to believe greatly in God, because I have lost faith in men. Many times have I felt his touch upon me, many times that I have found myself living where I should have died.”

Ibarra could see that this was a man whose experiences led him to refuse to recognize the right of man to judge his fellows, protested the use of force, and the superiority of some classes over the others.

“Elias, I know I have given you little cause to trust me, and we are hardly so close as to be friends, but would you be willing to tell me your story? What shaped you to be like this, and what can I do to prevent my boys from becoming bitter as you? I do not mean any insult by this-“

“And I take none from it, let the innocence of children be preserved for as long as possible.”

“I will tell you this, then – I have some knowledge of you, but that is not to know you. You are chosen, Elias, there is more to you than to be fugitive leading a band of tulisan-rebels. We must work together for the good of our nation, I shall lend my power to yours if you will yours to mine.

But first we must be able to trust. So let us talk.”

“I have not forgotten your implied threat against an innocent to draw me out, Señor Ibarra. Why should I trust you other than because you ask it? You have been in collusion with the creators of injustice in town.”

“Then allow me to rephrase that: if Mindoro is not too far from my reach, then even in Mindoro you and I will be able to protect her. Do not feel that to feel attachments is a liability, for it is that which makes life worth living! As for why I court the favor of the powerful – why not? If they are willing to allow the fox to guard the henhouse, then so much the better.”

“Where even do you find this confidence, Señor Ibarra? You speak grandly, and yet all I can see is that you will be crushed. Might you simply be naïve, and full of delusion in your own potency, as I was?”

“Perhaps. Tell me then, what makes you think that?”

Elias sighed. “If it will make you less bothersome, then I shall speak of some of it –“

-x-

Once upon a time in Manila, there lived a young man with a good life. He had a beautiful pregnant wife and a very young son and was employed as a bookkeeper for a Spanish commercial firm. One night for some reason the warehouse burned down, and the fire spread to the home of his employer and them to many other buildings. With such great loss, a scapegoat was sought, and the merchant accused him of being an arsonist.

Though he protested his innocence, he did not have the money to pay the great lawyers and was swiftly deemed guilty. In those times, not more than sixty years ago, they still used the punished called ‘caballo y vaca’ – horse and cow – in which the condemned is tied to a horse, followed by an unfeeling crowed, to be flogged publicly on every street corner under sight of men, his brothers, and the temples of god. Thus forever disgraced, and the vengeance of man sated by his blood, he must be taken off the horse limp as if dead, his soul exhausted by his cries.

How much better if he had died, and gone to God’s grace! But it is the refinements of cruelty that he was given his liberty. His wife begged from door to door for work, for alms, or aid for her sick husband and her poor son, but who would trust the wife of a criminal? All good people drove her from her sight. The wife, then, had no other resort but to become a prostitute!

-x-

“No, Señor, do not feel outraged for her sake; for them the disgraced and long head honor and shame no longer existed!” Elias exclaimed at the dark look of rage on Ibarra’s face. “Can you say things now are any better, now that such punishments are outlawed for the more civilized slavery of prisoners? Who truly suffers?”

“I fear to say that had your grandfather been a man of less honor, it would have affected him less. A habitual criminal would rejoice the pain of an afternoon rather than years taken from his life, to the better profit of his taskmasters.” Ibarra shook his head sadly. “It is not justice, and the object of criminal justice should be reform rather than revenge. But where public shaming and torture is the rule of the land, in deterrence, this also drives the townsfolk towards cruelty and treatment of the criminal as less than human. Which is better – out of sight, out of mind, cruelty applied by the government; or in-their-face, in shorter duration, to teach the young that violence is a fine measure? I would have to say, the former – for that we may yet reform.”

“Your words may be more exact than you know. I shall continue-“

-x-

In time the husband recovered from his wounds, and with his wife and child fled to hide in the mountains of this province. Here they lived several miserable months, hated and shunned by all. The woman gave birth to a sickly child, who fortunately died.

In time again she was pregnant, and fell ill in the advanced stages of her pregnancy. Unable to bear that misery, and less courageous than his wife, my grandfather hung himself. His corpse rotted in the sight of his young son, who was scarcely able to care for his mother. The stench drew the attention of the neighbors, and they accused the prostitute of being the cause of his death. Her swears of innocence could only be seen as perjury, her please to God a blasphemy, for a prostitute was capable of anything.

Yet in those times they had cruel pity of a sort. They waited for the birth of another child before they flogged her. Thus condemned, she could only curse the day of her child’s birth, which unfortunately was a healthy young boy. Two months later the sentence was executed much to the pleasure of the authorities and guardians of morality. Afterwards she then fled into the next province with her two sons, and there they lived, hating and being hated.

The elder of the two boys, remembering the misery of his childhood and yet the happiness of his infancy, became a tulisan as soon as he had strength enough in his arms. He took from the world with blood and fire the fitting revenge for how much they had taken from him. This bloody name of Balat spread from province to province, inspiring terror in the people.

-x-

“I know this name,” said Ibarra “for he had sacked the town of San Diego also in my grandfather’s time.”

“Do you care to guess from whom of the two brothers I spring?”

“I do not believe that sin is carried through the line by blood, so if you are the son of Balat it will not change my opinion. Indeed, it is the most Christian of notions to seek redemption. But in honesty, given your age, I think that it is the younger who is your sire, and that this story does not end in anything but violence.”

“Indeed, for in time Balat fell into clutches of the authorities, and they exacted from him a most agonizing sentence for all that he had wrought. More than that however, they laid further torments on the woman for having done nothing to raise him properly, perhaps in mind to terrify other mothers to mind their responsibility.”

-x-

One morning the youngest brother returned to find his mother stretched out on the ground, her hands digging into the earth, her eyes fixed and staring. He looked up to see hanging from a branch a basket, and in it the gory head of his brother.

Balat, they had torn apart, and his limbs hung in different towns. But the head, the best and most recognizable part of the person, they hung up in front of his mother’s hut!

The boy, finding nothing but death wherever he looked, fled as if accused and accursed.

From town to town and mountain and valley, he ran until he reached a place where he felt he was not known. There, in the province of Tayabas he hired himself out as a laborer in the house of a rich man. With thrift and labor and the gentleness of his spirit he acquired for himself the goodwill of those who knew naught of his past and some small capital besides.

In that town he also found the love of a young woman, but he dared not ask for her hand in marriage lest his past become known. But their love was stronger than their sense. To save her honor, he had to ask, but as he had feared his records were sought and his past came to light. The girl’s father was rich and had him imprisoned.

The woman gave birth to twins, but died soon after. They were raised in loving ignorance of their genealogy. They were sent to study in good schools – the boy in the Jesuit College, and the girl at Concordia. After their grandfather died, they inherited all his lands and servants, and their fields produced abundant harvests, and fortune smiled upon them. The girl was engaged to be married to a young man whose adoration she returned.

But the boy… ah, the boy was haughty in disposition, and in a dispute over money had incurred the enmity of a distant relative. One day said relative cast in his face doubt over his birth and the rotten nature of his descent. He…

-x-

“No, let me be plain from here on. I thought it was a slander, and demanded satisfaction. I challenged the relative to a duel, but being mocked further for my pretensions I brought the issue to court. And there, that putrid tomb of secrets and misery was opened once again, much to my dismay.

Furthermore, in our household was an old servant whom I had much abused, who always endured our whims and the jeers of the other servants – how that relative had known about it, but he had that old man summoned to court, and there he confessed, that he was but a man clinging in silence to his beloved children – our long-suffering father!”

Elias looked up at the night sky, brilliant and crystal-clear with the moon hanging low, and the constellation of Orion the Hunter suspended directly above them. He sighed.

“And so, out of my hubris, out of my youthful arrogance, our happiness faded away. We gave up our fortunes, my sister lost her betrothed, and with our father we had to flee and find refuge elsewhere. That he had contributed to our misfortunes weighed heavily on the old man’s days, but not before hearing from his lips the full sorrowful truth of our past.”

Elias slumped, but kept his hand on the hilt of his bolo. He spoke some more of the circumstances why he had first come to San Diego. Her despondency for her love abandoning her to marry another, her disappearance and her death, for which he could also do nothing.

The truth was out, he acted as he did now out of remose and bitterness. He was a man of both the principalia and the people, and he had taken for granted the graces and supposed moral superiority afforded by the wealthy. He was now utterly alone, with nothing to lose. His friends were bandits, who took to the hills to revenge themselves against those who used the law to punish the innocent in order to hide their own misdeeds.

“Since then I have wandered from province to province, and my reputation and history in the mouths of many. They attribute to my name many deeds, some to excuse their own.

Some… some deeds, I do not regret them, because I have seen that there is so much more misery, and that it cannot stand. There are more like me, awakened to the falsehood of what we call our social order. The sleep has lasted for hundred years, but now the passions of the people are stirring. What has begun in the sphere of ideas shall descend into the area, where they shall be dyed red and made true by blood.”

Ibarra nodded.

“We agree on this much. But violence alone is no solution; for if you had read of the terror of the French Revolution, and the rise of Napoleon; and the revolt in Mexico, and its own self-proclaimed Emperor, and the subsequent disastrous rule of the military, and even Spain’s own pains with their Liberals and their Glorious Republic – those who seek vengeance must dig graves for themselves. The revolution has a tendency to devour itself.

It is not enough to tear down the old order, but it is an even greater struggle to build a new one with justice and mercy for all.”

“Then allow the people to try. I have spoken to you of my past. Now speak to me plainly, sir, what is your intent?”

“Before you can judge what I wish for you to accomplish with me, I beg you to listen, as I tell you of my own family’s terrible secret.”

Elias grudgingly nodded.

And so Ibarra told him of his own great-grandfather, of Don Pedro Ebarramendia’s dark arrival and mysterious death, and pointed out the swinging rope where he had hung himself. He did not know for what reason the old man would choose the way of suicide, but what sins he bore must have weighed upon him at last. He was the one that had accused Elias’ grandfather of being an arsonist, the one to start this whole tragic tale; and yet, it was something that happened too often in these isles that it was difficult to believe it was regret for his false accusation that drove him to his doom.

Elias’ grandfather and Don Saturnino Ibarra must have been roughly the same age, but likely never to have met each other.

Crisostomo Ibarra put down the lantern and opened his arms. “And so my own grandather came to this town in search of his father, and buried him over there, and as he chose to settle here the name Ebarramendia became Ibarra. In this little copse it must still feel such paltry recompense for what your family has suffered.”

Elias gasped. “You… you dare? Do you make light of my family’s woes, señor?! Choose your words carefully if you want to live!”

“My own sources have been so far trustworthy in such matters, so I can say this – your family’s fall was started by one of our own. For this I can only beg for forgiveness. Though I believe each man must be responsible for his own choices – that like your own father there was a choice to do good or to become evil – we cannot move on unless we settle this debt of blood.”

He laughed! “Rejoice! In this little corner of the woods your journey for answers has ended. A new one awaits! Listen to the call of the blood in your veins, Elias! If it calls for vengeance, I will not stop you.” Ibarra stepped forward. “Do with me as you will.”

Elias raised his hand –

And punched Ibarra in the face.

“Oww raght inda schnoz!” he gurgled out. Crisostomo Ibarra bent over clutching his face.

The young man staggered back, for where he had spent most of his time studying and moving around Europe, Elias honed his body and spirit with honest labor and purposeful violence. The blow nearly blinded him.

“No. Whatever folly you have in mind, Señor Ibarra, I will have nothing of it. I am done with you. You have asked me to save your life, and so I have done so.” Elias grit his teeth and restrained the urge to lunge forward, and to throw the other man into the ground and grind his arrogant little face into the dirt. “Stay away from Salome, and do not seek to find me. For if ever we meet again, you shall surely regret it.

This is the one mercy I can give you. I was mistaken to hope one such as you, having seen the world, might feel sympathy about our plight and our people ready to change! What self-serving plans you have, I shall have no part in furthering your amusements!”

Elias turned around to leave the clearing.

Hollow laughter followed after him. “Ah, Elias. Good man, Elias. If this is what you have chosen, then I respect it. I respect your strength of will, and your sense of justice.

But the hand of the Lord is upon you. One more time, you are chosen. All your life you have run from the pain of your past, but now it is the future that will not allow you to escape!”

-x-

With unparalleled dignity and self-control, Elias strode away deep into the woods. He gave no more mind to Ibarra’s insane blathering. Carefully he trod through the undergrowth, alert to the sounds if he was being followed. He doused the light of his lantern, trusting in his practiced memory of jungle navigation to lead him past whatever trap Ibarra had prepared.

And he walked back out into the clearing.

-x-

Elias looked around bewildered and now drew his bolo. He was certain he had walked in a straight line. Yet there, directly in front of him, never having moved from his comfortable perch under that benighted balete tree, was Juan Crisostomo Ibarra!

Elias shouted, “What deviltry is this?!”

“No devils, sirrah. Angels!” replied Ibarra. In the dark only the white of his eyes and the blood-speckled red of his teeth showed in a Cheshire grin. “I told you, you are the chosen one. Fate is what we make of it, but this is one you will not escape. Angels shall follow your tread no matter how far you might run, and again and again they shall offer you their sword!

The nation needs you, Elias! Eliazar Domingo Morales y Baga! Your name means ‘God Has Helped!’”

And Crisostomo meant ‘Mouth of Gold’, but this Ibarra did not care to mention.

“Help me, Elias,” said Ibarra. “For indeed, you are this nation’s only hope. The Revolution cannot succeed without you.”

Elias’ blade flashed in the moonlight.

That shadowy glade was filled with nothing but deranged laughter.

Suddenly silenced.

-x-
Crisostomo Ibarra lay bonelessly upon a chair in his study, a room which also doubled as a chemical laboratory. It was lit harshly by the electric lamp, and from their shadows tall mocking specters danced on the walls. He sat backwards on that chair, resting his chin on the seat’s fluted backrest.
“Guu dif not haf to hit mu nosh agen!” he prosted while pressing a cloth over his much abused nose.
“Ah,” Elias replied gravely. “But I wanted to. I did not feel like killing you just yet.”
“Fehr enuf.”
“You have not exactly said what is it you really want from me.”
“Ang on, lemme gef a fing.” Ibarra reached over to a bookshelf and picked out a book. He tossed it over to Elias.
The fugitive glanced down at the heavily-bound leather book, with its gothic copperplate lettering, and replied “I recognize the letters, but I cannot read this.”
Ibarra took the cloth away from his face and spoke, in a voice unnaturally clear:  “In the name of God, the Father Almighty, and Jesus Christ His Son, Our Lord; by the hand of the Angels, by the sword of Uriel, and the Virtues through which miracles are worked upon the world- Uziel, Gabriel, Michael, Peliel and Babiel – and also Goghiel, the Keeper of Human Knowledge – I compel you!
I levy upon you the burden of understanding, and the duty to fight evil in all its forms. I bid you to hear all the voices of mankind, and never to fail to understand the intent behind all their works.
Now look down, and read again.”
Elias looked down at the book, and understood that it was  the
in the original German.
His eyes widened with the sudden realization. He could understand German now, despite never having studied it!
At his wide-eyed look, Ibarra commented “<I commend you to listen and speak in tongues, and see the truth of the world>” in unaccented Hokkien Chinese dialect. Elias understood the words perfectly well.
“… no. This… this is a trick of some sort!”
“I told you. I am not a prophet. I have been Chosen, and now so are you. An Angel stand by your side, by its sword you are charged to defend the weak and fight to protect what is right.”
Elias took several deep breaths and clenched his fists. He had expected Ibarra to ask him to lead a revolt or to fund raids upon his enemies using conveniently deniable ‘bandits’. Or to seek out charities. Not this. Not something so great in such a brightly-lit room of science. What holiness in such a place?!
But do you believe in God or not, Elias?! his mind screamed at himself. A miracle was right in front of him.  If he could deny this as much as he derided the priests for claiming to speak for God without proof of their words, then when proof is offered by someone who says he has the might of Angels behind him, what sort of man would think it from the Devil? Then one might as well trust nothing good, let all the world be the Devil’s work!
He grit his teeth and exhaled, and looked up.
Ibarra smiled. “I have said this to you before, I am not a prophet. When I say to you, there shall be a war like the world has never seen, with such fury and fire and shot that it shall shake the world, it is no revelation. The power of man and his tool science waxes, but the kingdoms of man are as greedy as ever, and war; war never changes. It is an inevitability!
Work with me, Elias, and this nation shall be a beacon for the lost and the suffering! And no one shall see it coming!”
Elias raised his fists. That ‘miracle’ was still so very much such the punchable face.

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4.1 Finding Elias

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The world is full of abundance and opportunity, but far too many people come to the fountain of life with a sieve instead of a tank car… a teaspoon instead of a steam shovel. They expect little and as a result they get little.
– 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!

Aha.

Ahaha.

MWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

“Wahahahaha.”

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.”

“What thing?”

“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?”

“… yes.”

-x-

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!

-x-

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.”

“Don Crisostomo-“

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?”

“He has.”

“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!”

-x-

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.


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Interlude: The Maiden 02

Maria Clara wanted to cry. Fear and grief and humiliation threatened to burst her heart, yet even so to her great surprise still her eyes refused to dampen. There was a blockage, somewhere within her, and as her emotions continued to surge unexpressed she feared she would die. Her vision misted, but in dizziness. She felt light-headed, and short of breath.

Even as she fell shaking into her Aunt Isabel’s arms, she could not cry, only painfully heave and hiccup. Perhaps if she were more like her friend Sinang, she would be able to weep unashamedly, and soon enough find relief.

The world closed in on Maria Clara. Thump, thump, her heartbeat thundered in her head, and she did not know why, but a part of her wondered; ah, if Crisostomo could see her now, he would find her too weak and pitiful. And that fed only her humiliation even further. Again and again she whispered “I’m sorry.”

Ibarra would have recognized that she was having a panic attack, and that would drive him into a panic, and guilt and make things worse trying to correct it, so it was probably just as well at this time he was off to throw himself into the lake.

Tiya Isabel stroked at the poor girls hair and crooned it would be all right.

That Ibarra was a dog, a scoundrel, and surely he shall be punished for what liberties he had taken. Who did he think he was? Capitan Tiago was more powerful still! Such villainy shall surely be punished, in this world and in the next.

“No, no! It was my fault, it was I that drove him away! Don Crisostomo had ever been a gentleman…” She recalled the glittering eagerness in his eyes, his naked longing, his smile open in boyish delight, and it warmed her. She had fallen in love with her memories of their times together, and the vision she had built up in her mind, but if one could fall in love all over again, then she had done so. She had expected a gentleman – not this ambition, this intensity.

She could burn.

There were two idealized stereotypes for women in those times. The first being prim, delicate flower – easily moved by emotion, possessed of charm and sensibility, but to swoon at horrid sights and uncouth behavior. She is the lady, the little princess, to be protected from the evils of the world.

The other was to possess an inexhaustible strength of a sort, against which not all the world can contend. She suffers in silences, smiles when her loved ones approach, and as long as they are happy, she is happy. She has made a virtue of suffering and seeks not to move from her place in the world – like Sisa, as we have seen. A stone mother, who bears the home on her shoulders.

Crisostomo Ibarra needed neither, she could see that. Maria Clara had spent most of her life hoping and waiting for marriage – ideally to Crisostomo, but more likely to whomever her father had chosen.

Maria Clara was left distraught, apologetic, and now wanted to call him back. But Ibarra had already left, and Capitan Tiago had this to say:

“Don Crisostomo said to me, that the fault is his alone. Causing you any distress is inexcusable. He will wait for at your convenience for however long you wish. He will not move, for you are the guiding light in his life, and all that you ask are his to give.” Capitan Tiago nodded approvingly. “You are my daughter after all. Do not make it too easy for him. Make him work to prove himself – unlike the rabble we are not so easily impressed by money.”

Aunt Isabel frowned at his lack of delicacy but gave no voice of complaint.

“I need… I need to go…” Maria Clara gasped. “I must go pray.”

“Good!” the old woman said. “Say a full rosary. Good child, the Blessed Virgin will guide you!”

-x-​

Maria Clara prayed not just one rosary, but several – but each bead and each Ave Maria gave her no comfort. The world still closed in on her, but at some point it stopped, and left everything in breathless shadows.

-x-​

Maria Clara blinked. The wind was cool and fragrant, sunlight flickered through the shade of tall trees, and birds sang merrily all around her. She was standing in front of an old weather-beaten hut. It stood on irregular bamboo stakes, and lacked a door.

The ground beneath her feet was at an incline, and she realized she was somewhere most of the way up a mountain. She turned around to see, past a small bough of trees, the lake of Laguna de Bay glittering like field of daggers. She could clearly see all three of its prongs, like a dragon clawed out a portion of the earth.

Maria Clara squinted and held up her hands over her eyes, stinging at the shattered reflections of the noonday sun upon the waters. She turned around again. The sounds of the forest had grown muted. She was possessed by a strong urge to enter that dark, open hut in the deserted slopes of Mount Makiling.

Barren.

It was the only word Maria Clara could use to describe what she found inside. Not empty, for through the murky gloom she could discern shapes that might be the comportments of a home – a small chest for one’s meager belongings; there, a standing tube that might be a sleeping mat; some vague roundish things that might be clay jars. There were no tables or tableware, for a peasant’s home rarely had one; they would eat on the floor, often not even with dishes but a mat of banana leaves, and squeezing rice and broiled fish in between their fingers. But Maria Clara could feel no such humility there.

The insides seemed livable, but in some way also lifeless.

Not unused, not abandoned, but barren. Barren in the way of a womb that cannot carry a child. Maria Clara’s hands went over her own. It was only then that fear began to stir. Though dark and in the middle of a cool forest, the insides of the hut felt unreasonably warm.

Then what little light that could enter the room dimmed. Maria Clara turned about, and found that her exit was blocked by the silhouette of a woman.

“Oh oh ohhh oh oh ho! A visitor, a visitor!” she sang out. “How very unexpected, in this day, in these days!”

Her voice had a particularly bright quality, like a mirror glinting straight into your eyeballs under the noonday sun. Or perhaps a school of silvery fish, darting to and fro in unison, whimsical and also full of predatory nature.

“P-pardon my intrusion, please,” Maria Clara said shakily, now for the first time dread touched her being. “I was just… I was just… I have no excuse. I should leave.”

The woman laughed gaily and stepped inside. The shadows pulled away from her feet. “Do not mind it, senorita, for this little dwelling is not mine. My friend had only asked me to mind it now and then, while she is away. Far away, far away, a strange woman in a strange land.”

She reached for some hidden window, and opened it, and with new light the room was cast into placid banality. What had been corners unfanthomably deep became bamboo corner posts. The breeze that entered was devoid the leafy scents of the forest.

The woman’s features were quintessentially that of a native, but in a way Maria Clara could not define. She was pretty, but in a general sort of way, and it hurt Maria Clara’s head to try and remember features should she see that face again later. She brimmed with youth, but somehow in a way that left Maria Clara feeling that this woman was a fair bit older than her. She was just that naturally blithe.

An overwhelming impression of … blue-greeness? That was her strongest sense about the woman. The woman’s clothes were likewise unremarkable. Where she moved, the place seemed a little bit brighter, more open than before.

There was a door now, leading into a small porch at the back of the house.

The woman pointed to the middle of the room. “Sit, sit. I shall make you some tea.”

“I would not wish to intrude,” Maria Clara demurred gently, yet insistently. “I should go.”

“It has been too long since there were guests in this mountain. Please sit, oh please sit. I shall make you some tea.” As she drifted on by her voice trailed off “… it can’t be that hard, surely not, surely not, to make boiled leaf juice…?”

There was no place to sit but on the floor. Gingerly Maria Clara folded her skirt and obeyed. A fire was set outside, and a clay pot set to boil. Water came from a cunningly-assembled little aqueduct of split bamboo taking fresh clean water from a mountain spring.

“Who are you, young miss?” the woman asked from outside. She found a small box of tea leaves and crudely just threw them into the pot.

“My name is Maria Clara, madam.”

“Ahaha, ahaha! I know you, I know you!”

“You do?”

“Of course I do, yes I do! I saw you by the lake, once before. They know you there, down in town. You don’t live here, so you love the lake all the more.”

Maria Clara nodded. San Diego was her family’s summer home. In many ways, she loved this place best; here was her best memories of freedom and childhood.

“Aba baba ba ba ba, I am ang babae sa baba” the woman from below “I don’t belong up in this mountain at all. So you may call me may call me… Baba Ye? Bayi? Yes, that will do. Call me Auntie Bayi.”

“If you’re sure? It is a pleasure to meet you, I think.” Maria Claria tried out the words through her lips. “Tiya Bayi?”

Bayi returned, laid out mats, and then a steaming clay pot of tea. With the lid on, she poured tea into two cut bamboo cups. She then dumped generously into each wild honey from another jar, stirred with a bamboo stick. She then placed one cup before Maria Clara. “Please,” she gestured.

Maria Clara drank, and tried to keep a grimace from her face. The water was still too hot. It was still too bitter, with the cloying aftertaste of honey overwhelming what natural flavors from the steeping. Not good tea at all.

“Good?” Bayi asked eagerly.

Maria Clara could only nod mutely.

“Now tell me about your love problems.”

“Um, what? Pardon?”

“A young lady such as you, in a place as this? How far you’ve come, how far you’ve gone! You are no woodsman off to rest after a hunt, so of course, you are here for advice.” Here Bayi sighed wistfully. “A man who lives so far apart, they call him wise, they call him a hermit. Ermitanyo sa bundok, wag kang mabubulok” Hermit on the mount, don’t so spoiled. “But a woman who knows her lore, who lives her woods, they’d call her a witch instead. Hmm hmm hmm hm hm hm,” she whispered under her breath “does she sink, does she drown?”

“Um… I really don’t recall… I should not be here.” Maria Clara glanced aside. Love advice? No, you go to a witch in the woods for an abortifacent! “I should go.”

“Sit. Sit and sip and sit and breath. Oh oh oh ho ho. Put your burden down.”

Bayi smiled benignly at her. Maria Clara wished for a fan she could use to hide her face, but there was nothing around. Only the bamboo cup, but then putting it close to her face meant she was obliged to drink from it. She sighed in surrender.

And so Maria Clara slowly began to speak of her regrets. Of Crisostomo’s plans for the future, and how deeply she felt ashamed for shying away. How she feared he could find someone better, some woman braver, as his bride. When she thought of their life together, she had only envisioned herself commanding her own little troop of servants, managing a store and the household finances. She would be parsimonious with expenses, so that her husband would always have loose money to spend for his own leisure. In return, she would be given her own jewelry and dresses and children to adore.

“Oh, the things in that boy’s head!” Bayi giggled. “Are you sure you have not simply been turned off by his hubris? Are you sure, are you sure, that that you chose to stand firm before his pressure?

Oh child, oh my child, I’ve seen so many eager young men come and go in the world. I’ve seen them roam, I’ve seen them die! It is very easy to speak big when you are young – if you die, you become a hero. If you live, you grow fat, you grow old, you grow callous, you go cold! Ever has it been in these lands, ever it will be, from mountain to the sea.”

“How… do you know of Don Crisostomo?”

“Oh, Maria Clara, why do you even need to ask? The moment that boy arrived, he has been showing off. A stone dropped into a pond ripples outwards. Silly boy, oh silly boy. Your suitor is like a rock, dense and big-headed, throwing himself face-first into the waters. ” Bayi tilted her head as if listening to something in the distance. “Repeatedly.”

She sipped at her tea. “More than anything, I think, a young man such as that needs, how he begs, how he aches; someone sensible to anchor him to reality.”

Maria Clara looked away. She recalled Crisostomo’s plaintive cry ‘No one will ever need you as much as I do.’

“I am still afraid…” she whispered. “I am afraid he will not be satisfied with me.” She had already resigned herself to the idea that, as long as her husband is discreet, his affairs will not be criticized. Having a querida was in those times even something of a status symbol among the rich men. It spoke well of their virility and ability to support more than one household. “But this is wrong… I am blaming him for sins he has yet to make! The fault is mine, and mine alone…”

“Tch’ah. Oh silly girl, oh silly girl; you are too kind-hearted. You can wrap him around your little finger, but you do not relish what power you do have, yes you have it, you do. Don’t believe he’s Mister Suave.” Bayi put down her cup. “Neither of you dare to be fools in love, fools in love. A marriage of souls, is not a contract, not a family pact! I blame the sisters at the convento for this. You have all reduced womanhood into sacrifice.

You don’t know how to be coquettish, how to be sly; you don’t know how to inspire your man to greater heights! Unlike the one who lived this house, I love ambitious people, Tagalog, Spanish, Chinese, British, I love them all to bits! A mountain of faith sits there and suffers, but a wise woman moves and wins!”

Maria Clara sat there half-kneeling with her hands on her knees. She was the very picture of chaste, beauteous docility. With her head downcast, she did not see Bayi curl her lips up instead at this pitiful sight.

“Would you like me to teach you?”

It seemed as if an eternity, and then soft as a kitten’s mewl, inside that hut was heard “… yes, please.”

She did not see Bayi positively hiss in delight.

-x-​

 

The next day, Capitan Tiago had to turn away many petty visitors. Nothing travels as fast as gossip, and when Maria Clara had sent away Crisostomo Ibarra in the mid-afternoon by evening the whole town knew that she had rejected his suit. Ibarra did not find many allies, much to her own dismay. He was rich, and he was generous, and yet everyone thought the worst of him. Perhaps, because he did seem like such a promising groom, it would take a great fault for Maria Clara to spurn him so.

Sinang (Constancia Del Rosario), Capitan Basilio’s daughter arrived to commiserate with her friend and report to her vital news about town. Apparently, Don Crisostomo has decided to make a nuisance of himself in lieu of trying to appear before her too soon to beg forgiveness.

It was the custom in those times that a courtship may be made through intermediaries, that other family members and friends may visit and speak well of the suitor to his intended. A Spanish insular from Cavite was speaking to Maria Clara about the virtues of his young cousin.

Sinang apologized for interrupting and reported “Don Crisostomo has set fire to another house!”

What? “I… was not aware he even had set fire to a house in the first place,” Maria Clara retorted.

The visitor seemed to have come to a sudden realization and hurriedly excused himself to leave.

Sinang reported:

  • Don Crisostomo had barged into the classroom and seized the teacher.
  • Don Crisostomo had forced his way into the gobernardocillo’s house and seized the old man.
  • Don Crisostomo had invaded the Guardia Civil barracks.

Maria Clara stared at her friend, doubting both her sanity and the veracity of her reporting.

Now Padre Salvi arrived, huffing and highly irate. Don Crisostomo had attempted to seize him on the way to Capitan Tiago’s house. Padre Salvi refused to even open a conversation, so Don Crisostomo pointed at him angrily and shouted “No freebies for you, then!”

Maria Clara had to attend to the priest’s visit, for he was a visitor Capitan Tiago cannot turn away for any reason. Gaunt and exuding an aura of hunger, he pressed her if she had ever heard anything of correspondence between Padre Damaso and her mother. Stiffly, she replied that she had no knowledge of any such things.

In the end, what uncomfortable conversation passed between them was his counsel for her to beware of immoral and arrogant young men who will lead her astray. She was wise to spurn his advances, she should look for a virtous person as a husband. After all, what does it gain a man to have all the world if he would lose his own soul?

Do not be tempted; she was told; sweet words and gifts were nothing compared to an eternity in Hell. The greatest wisdom was being true to the commandments, and to live a modest and sanctified life. Those who reach too greedily will surely find themselves paying the wages of their sin, in time.

Padre Salvi left her feeling more distressed than ever.

Don Crisostomo had not visited nor even sent anyone to plead in his stead. And she wondered, ‘Is this the face of his own rejection?’ He could not stop moving, he had put her aside because she could not keep up, exactly as she had feared. Exactly as she had arranged.

Maria Clara could only sit by the window, still as a statue; on the outside, calm and brave and inside a whirpool of regret and self-loathing. As much as she might want to call out to take it back, she was still Capitan Tiago’s daughter. No, of course not, she could not be so weak as to surrender so easily; it was the man’s job to prove himself equal to the expectations of the bride’s family. A woman must be pursued, she is the prize to be won, never to be the first to express her desires.

Of course she could not be so wanton a woman.

It was better that two ships pass each other by in the night, never to meet again, than to disrespect the boundaries of their station.

-x-​

“He is a rock. More than that, he is a man. They will miss all subtlety,”  was the whisper in the night. “Oh, oh, oh, You do not understand. You have his interest, you have his faith

This romance is so easy is it almost unfair. But it will not be so very easy for you, no, no, no.

The only one who can save these so many many lives is you!”

-x-​

Early the next morning found Maria Clara being visited by two young boys. They stood stiffly before her and saluted. Maria Clara heard a minute ‘crack’ from their worn yet laboriously starched and ironed shirts; the fruit of Sisa’s frantic labor, that they should look presentable.

“I am Basilio,” said the older, in a clear and spirited voice. “I am ten years old.”

“I am Crispin,” said the younger, in a much more wavering tone. “I am seven years old.”

“Pleased to meet you, I am Maria Clara. I suppose I have been expecting to meet you two. Don Crisostomo has spoken to me of you.”

So these were the two boys she was supposed to put under her protection? They did not look anything special. Their faces were round and flat, their skins a muted brown.

What set them apart from any other urchin on the streets were the bright blue vests that they wore. The indigo trade, Maria Clara remembered, that was how the Ibarra family distinguished themselves.

Most of the fields around San Diego that were clad in those pink and violent flowers were owned by Ibarra, and as a child she had found it so amazing that fields could be set to grow only flowers instead of her father’s own vast haciendas of rice. Even at the time few knew (or cared to know) that the brilliant insoluble blue of indigo were actually processed from its leaves, or that as legumes indigo plants were excellent for crop rotation.

What Maria Clara remembered was the focused light in Crisostomo’s eyes, peeling open everything in his sight to expose valuable secrets. These two children, there had to be a deeper reason for Crisostomo to go so far; in declaring his support for them so obvious, he also exposed them to danger from his own enemies.

The children wore rattan slippers while all other peasant children and even most adults went barefoot. They also carried a small pouch bag, and the strap went across their chests.

Maria Clara frowned slightly. “These… these are uniforms,” as she pointed to their garb. It reminded her faintly of the Guardia Civil. “Is Crisostomo putting you to work already?”

They nodded proudly. Maria Clara was left bewildered. What was the point then, in asking for her to protect them, if he was going to place them under his aegis anyway? What did Crisostomo really intend?

In this era, children had little time to enjoy their childhood, they were always ordered about by their parents and elder siblings; happy is the family where the children could contribute to its earnings. Perhaps this was why so many, upon reaching adulthood, gave in to indolence – for only now they could move (or not to move) according to their own will. Even Maria Clara had to compromise; in putting them under her protection, of course they had to be useful to her father’s household.

Basilio brought out a square pieces of paper, about five inches to the side. Crispin tugged at his sleeves apprehensively.

“Brother, do not do the thing.”

“Crispin, I am doing the thing. It would be a waste of the practice we had with Don Crisostomo.”

“Don Anastasio said you do not have to do the thing…” The young boy looked lost on whom to obey more. Old Tasio’s age and wisdom, or Don Crisostomo’s wealth and power? But even young Crispin could recognize this was more of Don Crisostomo’s foolishness.

Basilio shook his head again. “Don Anastasio cannot countermand Don Crisostomo about this. Only Senorita Maria Clara can.”

Maria Clara blinked. “Um. What is this thing…? You do not have to… do the thing? If you do not want to.”

“I want to do the thing,” Basilio firmly replied. Crispin put his face in his palms again. Maria Clara hesitantly bid him to continue.

Basilio carefully evened out his expression. He squinted, and set his lips into a tight, humorless line. He arrogantly jutted out his chin. It was the most serious of serious faces.

Maria Clara suppressed an unladylike snort and put her own palm over her own face. A little giggle escaped her lips. “Oh, Dios mio,” she gasped. That was an eerily accurate Crisostomo Ibarra impression. “Crisostomo, what are you making these children do?”

In his bright normal voice, Basilio said “Don Crisostomo has no face he can show you, Senorita. He does not wish to give you any distress.” Then in a lower tone of voice “Maria Clara! By the hands of the innocent, you will have the truths that you seek!”

Basilio swept his hand up. “Don Crisostomo will not force anything upon you, not even his ideals! He will take away from himself even the ability to preach.”

Basilio held out a piece of paper. “A quip. A droll observation. A spur of the moment response. In these little things, we may have a conversation.”

Basilio pressed the paper to his forehead. “People who communicate this way may be called Quippers.”

Maria Clara blinked. She blinked again. “What.”

-x-

“What.”

-x-

Among Don Crisostomo’s whirlwind of activities yesterday, he had also ordered that a billboard be set up at the town center. Four lock-boxes with a mail-slot were nailed to the board. The boys had identical keys to one of the lock-boxes.

One of them would stay with Don Crisostomo, the other with Maria Clara. In this manner, each only had to walk halfway to pass messages. On the hour, every hour, every day.

Maria Clara rubbed at the bridge of her nose. “Crisostomo… is this not but a telegram?”

She was met with uncomprehending stares. Oh, of course. She was speaking to peasant children. To their pitiful knowledge of the world: What even is a telegram? Crisostomo, why. Why this?

Maria Clara took a deep breath and held it. Wait. Surely… she is expected to respond as well? Every hour, on the hour, she must write back so as not to waste these children’s efforts.

Or, perhaps, she might just go and tell Crisostomo to stuff this nonsense? These children should own their own time. “Should you not be in school instead?” she asked them.

Basilio shook his head. “We are already learning from Don Anastasio. This is easy work for us. For most of an hour, all we have to do is to wait around.”

“Why can’t someone else just carry these messages?” Maria Clara suggested the obvious. “We do not lack for any other servants.”

“This much I understand. Don Crisostomo said: symbolism. We do not know Spanish, not yet, and we do not care for the contents of your messages. We owe too much to Don Crisostomo, anyone who wants to read your exchanges will have to seize it from our fingers.”

“I see.” And thus only someone willing to become an enemy of both Capitan Tiago and Crisostomo Ibarra. No, worse than that – she had already asked Padre Damaso to protect the boys as if her own body. As much as being around Padre Salvi made her uncomfortable, he had released the children from his service – he was not allowed to harm them. Crisostomo had somehow made himself an enemy of the priest, but he was plying the garrison commander with gifts. So not even the Guardia Civil should meddle with the boys.

Crisostomo, how?! Was this your intent all along?

Maria Clara only felt more discouraged. She would like to know more about Crisostomo’s thoughts, but her own life was far less interesting in return. What did she have to say? On the hour, every hour, it would only worry her so.

“Thoughts, feelings, whims, questions, anything,” Basilio suggested. “These are all quips. Would you like to see Don Crisostomo’s first message now?”

Maria Clara sighed and nodded.

Basilio handed over another square piece of paper.

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA 

Please do not be too angry at me, @MARIACLARA.

Maria Clara held up the paper to her eyes. “What? What even is this…” @? And IBARRA? Why did he combine her first names?

Basilio continued “Quips may be anything, but they also have rules.”

At being handed a blank square, she hesitated.

She wrote back:

@MARIACLARA to @IBARRA

I am not angry at you, Crisostomo.

That was it? Then she would have to wait an hour for a reply. That felt very… insufficient.

“You sound like you have something to say,” Basilio said again. “Why not just say it?”

‘Like what?’ she restrained herself from spitting out, ‘What can I say that is worth hearing about? My life is not that exciting, my wishes are small, my hopes are meager. I ask only not to be humiliated.’

Basilio continued staring intently up at her. She looked away, discomfited.

“Don Crisostomo has another message for you,” Crispin offered.

 

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA 

My breakfast was fried rice and one fried egg and dried squid. 
I think I am developing a taste for danggit.

 

Maria Clara squinted at the paper.

She sighed and told the boys “I truly do not want to make you walk for only trifling conversation.”

Basilio shrugged. “Don Crisostomo will make it all silly talk anyway. Why not just ask him what he is doing? I think, that is why he decided on this new… silliness… of his.”

Maria Clara pursed her lips and nodded. She wrote out her ‘quip’ and handed it to Basilio. The boy nodded and left. Maria Clara was left puzzled what to do with Crispin, who remained. The boy fidgeted under her gaze, and then after a while hesitantly took out a workbook from his bag.

“Don Anastasio said every time I sit, I should be learning something.”

Maria Clara asked to look through the workbook, and Crispin handed it over. It consisted of several tests in mathematics and history. She smiled. “Would… you like me to help you with this?”

“… please?” the boy replied in a small fearful voice.

Time passed. Aunt Isabel passed by and frowned disapprovingly at the little boy sitting at the bench, kicking his legs idly in the air as he tried to figure out the math problems. “You must be careful,” she whispered to Maria Clara as she moved theough the sala. “This boy is the son of a thief, he should not be left alone anywhere in the house.”

Maria Clara stared at the boy contemplatively, and at the hourglass by his side.

Soon enough, the sands ran out and he had to go. He refused to ride along in the made-up excuse for the servants to go fetch something from town. It was only a short walk away, he would lose at most fifteen minutes out of every hour.

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

We are building a new water tower and digging ditches. 

I AM HYGIENE!

 

Maria Clara held up the note to her eyes. The first part was written in Spanish, the last part was written in English. She did not speak English, but had a strong feeling that was not grammatically correct.

 

@MARIACLARA to @IBARRA

Where are you building? What about sanitation?
Are you trying to have running water like in Manila?

 

Some time later Crispin returned, slightly out of breath. Maria Clara chided him slightly, there was no need to hurry. Next time surely he should just ride with the servants’ horse cart. This was approaching cruelty to children, Crisostomo!

 

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

Indoor plumbing, yes. Water goes in. Waste goes out.
Fortuitously my home is near the river.
I am helping dig the channel to the river
.​

 

 

Maria Clara tried to imagine what that would look like. She replied:

 

@MARIACLARA to @IBARRA

An admirable goal, Crisostomo. But are you really
performing manual labor? 

Do you not have anything more important to do?
 
 

She agonized that it might sound too disparaging of his efforts, but if Crisosomo could not handle her raw thoughts, then why should she expect his inner truths in turn?

He replied:

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

Physical labor is nothing to be ashamed of, hard
work builds muscles and tempers the heart. 

It takes effort to look good for my sweet.

Once more Maria Clara held the note up to her eyes, as if it might suddenly erase and replace itself with something more comprehensible.

That note was snatched out of her hands, because it was at this time nine o’clock and her friend Constancia had come to visit. She tittered. “Ooooooooo! This? This is what you two have been saying to each other? How bold! How amazing, Maria Clara! I did not expect you to be this daring…!”

“I- I… I did not! Ah!” Maria Clara snatched up the paper and made as if to crumple it. She exhaled and then her gaze found Crispin. “Did you know what is this note? Crisostomo… to make children carry such…” she trailed off, unable to say something that might ruin any innocence.

“Do not worry. We do not understand Castila,” the boy replied.

@MARIACLARA to @IBARRA

Crisostomo! What words are you making children carry!
What are you trying to say? 

 

Sinang pouted at this choice of response. Then, she brightened up. She excused herself, and Maria Clara saw through it instantly. “Do not dare!” she screeched.

An hour later found the de Los Santos sala filled with giggling young women. Aunt Isabel scowled some more, for they might decide to stay for lunch. At least this gave reason for more trips to town, for which Basilio was ordered to hitch a ride.

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

I should wear trajes de luces when it is time
to serenade you.

 

“Why would anyone be wearing a bullfighter’s clothes when making harana?”, referring to the serenade, one of the young unmarried women of San Diego asked.

“Is he likening their courtship to the bullring? It is not the man’s place to weave and tempt, it should be the maiden who is the one whose mere gesture with a handkerchief drives men mad.”

“It is simpler than that, I think,” Constancia replied. “Tight. Pants.”

“Ooooh.”

“So tight it would like wearing nothing at all.”

Maria Clara had her face in her palms. She asked not to be humiliated, but this…

Constancia false-echoed “Nothing at all.”

Maria Clara grit her teeth. ‘Why is this my life now?’

 

@MARIACLARA to @IBARRA

Crisosostomo, stop.
Lewd! You are being too lewd, Crisostomo!

What sort of woman do you think I am that
you would say this?

 

And the reply:

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

Madam, I AM trying to seduce you.

 

The house erupted in high-pitched excited squealing. Crispin had to put his palms over his ears.

But there were two posts. Even without understanding the contents he cringed as he handed it over.

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

The sort of woman you are
is the woman I wish to be my wife.
I will have no other.

 

So loud were the young women screaming that Aunt Isabel stomped out to scold them all. “What is this about? Be silent! Young women these days, you have no respect! Do not bother Don Santiago with your noise!”

Constancia nodded eagerly, mumbling her apologies. The other young women of San Diego similarly made contrite pleas. The old woman frowned, wondering if she should stay to watch over the behavior of the visitors, but Maria Clara swore to maintain the peace of the household.

After Aunt Isabel left, Constancia went ‘bleh!’ and spat out the message containing the damning words ‘I am trying to seduce you’. The others congratulated her on her quick thinking. Maria Clara was just as relieved, and not a little disgusted.

@MARIACLARA to @IBARRA

Crisostomo, watch your words.
I am not longer reading these in privacy

Ah, how many women must you have known
in Europe, to be so wise in these ways.

And the response:

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

You would be surprised.
Not all grandmothers are prudish prunes.
One piece of advice given to me –
Is that all brides deserve an exciting courtship.

‘I should make sure Aunt Isabel does not see this’ was Maria Clara’s immediate thought. “Sinang, open your mouth.” She had not yet forgiven her friend.

“How cruel, Maria Clara!” she exclaimed dramatically. Then she folded the paper and inserted it into her mouth as if accepting the wafer of holy communion. She chewed. Smugly.

Maria Clara took a deep breath. “So be it. Since you are all here anyway… what should I write next?”

The sala rang again with suggestions and arguments, and Maria Clara had to shush them. Crispin waited near the stairs, far enough away from their conversation. Maria Clara chose to write in a scolding fashion:

@MARIACLARA to @IBARRA

Crisostomo, even an exciting courtship
should not be an improper one.

I will not elope
Nor forgive taking any advantage.

 

Crispin left with the message, but barely fifteen minutes had passed before he returned. First, he handed over the response to her message.

 

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

My only desire is to make you
the happiest woman on Earth

 

Maria Clara flushed. It is too soon to propose Crisostomo! while the other young women there could only tut-tut in scandalized glee. Then Crispin handed over another paper square.

 

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

For some mysterious reason
the young men of the town have come
to make a nuisance of themselves in my house.

They have insisted on lending the boys
the use of their carriages.

And one more:

It is nearly noon.
If you will permit, we shall resume
at one in the afternoon,
and every half an hour then?

“Ohhh! Oooohh!” the young women cried, some of them excitedly waving their hands with fingers splayed out in gigglish frenzy. Scandalous indeed! Not just anonymous love letters, but winsome notes that will be read by others. Cupid fires blindly, does the arrow know it strikes true?

-x-

Most of the young women of San Diego left to dine at their own homes, for they did not have the status to be invited to dine with Capitan Tiago’s family. Of course, the offer was raised in the name of hospitality, as was the custom, and even more insistently when they demurred. Only someone so shameless as to cop a free meal would only accept, and it would shame their family slightly to imply they they could not feed their daughters.

Only Constancia remained. She looked properly deferential and did not speak other than to offer thanks. Maria Clara had by this point forgiven her, for it was Sinang’s way to be flighty and easily fascinated in all the ways she herself sought the comforts of courtesy and social rituals.

“How goes your correspondence with Don Crisostomo?” Capitan Tiago asked.

Maria Clara stiffened. Was he angry? Was he giving her the rope to hang herself? A quick glance showed Aunt Isabel looking vaguely displeased, quite possibly still annoyed that a gaggle of young women were flocking about her sala. That he did not seem to mind seemed to prove he expected this to happen.

Maria Clara could only reply “It is going… well, father.” That was vague enough as to be absolutely useless, she figured.

-x-

The ladies returned half an hour after twelve, and Crispin returned a little after one-o-clock. It was a coincidence that they all arrived in time as few in the Philippines owned a timepiece and even fewer that respected it.

A @MATANGLAWIN compared Maya to flowers in summer, and @KABISIG spoke to a certain @PARUPARO about the whispers of longing above the golden fields. The young women preened, and hid their faces as they received more verses.

Don Crisostomo sent Maria Clara a quip about what lunch he had.

 

@MARIACLARA to @IBARRA

Crisostomo, have you no poetry in your soul? ​

 

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

Maria Clara, I have all the poetry


What sweet truths I wish to speak
are best whispered into your ears.

 

Maria Clara blushed. He was still doing that! With his … insinuations! Unforgivable!

But… if she could understand what he implied…? Did that not mean she too had a sinful mind? Maria Clara silently begged the Virgin Mary for forgiveness.

A few more exchanges, and then-

 

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

I have borrowed four young maidens from the town.​

 

What.

“How shameless!”

“Make him explain himself, Maria Clara! Not in half-an-hour, but immediately!”

“He is taunting you. Punish him.”

Maria Clara shook her head. Don Crisostomo was obviously trying to provoke a reaction. This was likely much more boring than it first appeared. Do not be coy, Crisostomo! That is my job, not yours!

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

Also, the marching band. They are here too.

 

@MARIACLARA to @IBARRA

What are you doing, Crisostomo?

 

@IBARRA to @MARIACLARA

Ask Crispin to demonstrate. 

 

Maria Clara lowered the paper from her face. The child fidgeted nervously under her carefully bland gaze. “I will have to ask to borrow four of your friends who can sing, miss.”

Constanstia eager raised her hand. “I will do it! Aaand…” she swept her finger across the circle of young ladies, “You. And you. And you!”

Maria Clara sighed and gave them permission to do whatever in secret in the next room over.

After a few minutes, Constancia returned, beaming impishly. They stood side by side in a line. The young women began to jig in place, pointing with their hands in an L-shape from side to side. They chanted happily

“Jambol, jambol –

Kaya mo ba to?

Kaya mo ba to?

Wag maging bato

Para mag patalo!

Jambol, jambol –

Kaya mo ba toooo!” 

And again:

Jumble, jumble

Can you handle this?

Can you handle this?

Don’t be such a rock

That you lose out!

Jumble, jumble

Can you handle thiiiiiiiiiiis!​

 

Cristomoooo what are you uppp tooooo?! 

-x-

That night, Maria Clara went to sleep with a smile on her lips.

Sure, eventually Aunt Isabel managed to talk Capitan Tiago into ceasing their Quipper exchanges, as a frivolous, noisy activity and a moral threat besides. Don Crisostomo did not expect the little diversion to last more than a day, for he was made to admit it was really nothing more than a telegram service for the town and if there was anything more he’d have to charge for it. The two boys were already too tired.

Maria Clara was a figure of envy , but all young ladies in town would have a more exciting courtship now. Don Crisostomo’s latest whim was not so expensive. If they wanted to outdo him, they need only to be more creative. Don Crisostomo lacked all subtlety.

The young lady closed her eyes, relieved that she was still so much desired.

She woke up to the smell of salt, and smoke, and paper, and oil.

After a few moments, she recognized the angular shadows as the insides of an office. It was night, and outside the works of man outshone the stars. The lights of the big city, even past midnight they could afford to keep the streets lit with gas. She moved towards the windows and marveled at the unfamiliar skyline of New York outside.

Though she had been set only last year, the Statue of Liberty was virtually invisible at night; according to newspapers her torch “more a glow-worm than a beacon” until later improvements in the next century.

Maria Clara had never before seen such a metropolis, but in a dream anything was possible. She glanced at the windowsill and her brows shot up in further awe. Beyond was a balustrade clad in a chalky white substance. Snow! She had never seen snow before.

“Is that all it takes to ease your doubts? He acts before you in all caprice like a child, and you only smile? Is that all you expect from life?”

A woman’s voice, flinty and domineering, and Maria Clara whirled about in alarm. She saw silhouetted a tall woman standing there, audaciously arms akimbo in the shadows. Her face could not be discerned, but she had long straight hair flattened against the sides of her head. She had on a pale blue shirtwaist with large puffed sleeves that cut her a mannish air.

She spoke again, and her voice crackled like the wind passing through a copse of bowing bamboo. “Bayi aims to teach you guile, in order to control your fate. But as long as you sit there with the leisure to wait, you are not one to command. You will only ever be granted allowance, a protected one.”

Maria Clara blinked, and then suddenly the woman was upon her.

“I refuse. I refuse timidity. I refuse weakness. I refuse stagnation. I refuse ignorance! If you cannot become the power to balance our exile-”

Darkness claimed Maria Clara’s vision as a hand cold as a the mountain mists slapped over her eyes. She felt fingernails digging at her cheeks, temples and scalp.

And those fingers began to squeeze. “Then why not just – GIVE – ME – YOUR – FACE!”

She felt bones yield, and a soggy feeling entered her brain.

-x-​

Maria Clara woke up screaming.

Her mouth tasted of burnt grass. It was now the day before the fiesta.


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