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As in nature, as in art, so in grace; it is rough treatment that gives souls, as well as stones, their luster.
But let us not yet speak of Maria Clara. Let us turn back a few days. On the dawn of day of the dead, I prayed:
Father, I can only hope that what I am doing does not disappoint you. Watch over me in heaven, father, and be not ashamed. Your bones lie in the lake, your tomb is nature itself. You died alone and suffering, but now you are free.
You no longer need to deal with these sanctimonious assholes.
Dealing with the Alferez is easy enough. A man so quickly enraged with slights to his honor, and despises uppity Filipinos, flattery works with him well enough. “It was your complete victory against Padre Salvi, sir, and the humiliation of having been fooled by a thief for so long will not be forgotten so easily.”
“Well said! I had my doubts about your… analysis… but this has worked out very well. It is not as if the cura restrains himself from condemning myself and my men as mindless thugs and murderers. But culling the herd now and then helps keep the natives nice and peaceful, already the tongues are wagging to their children that drinking and gambling would lead to such a sorry end. We have done a public service!
And that Don Anastasio cannot even say anything, for he was there to see it! You have done well with me, Don Crisostomo, and I will not forget this. But do not think I will allow lend my men to you again for any small reason.”
“Oh of course not, Señor Espina. Let us work together again if there is something sufficiently interesting. Most crimes and accusations are insipidly straightforward, really, and manhunts only tedious.” I pause to smile. “But I am reminded of something else-“
“Would you honor me by accepting a small token of my esteem? Some of my baggage from abroad had just arrived. Upon sight of it in Europe, I was quickly reminded of my father and bought it, but now he has no use for it. I would much rather you have it than anyone else. It seems… fitting.” I asked him again to lend me his men merely to carry baggage, a small thing, for it was to his benefit anyway.
They unpack before him a crate, which reveals a chair made of plush velvet and its frame plated gold. Its armrests end in carved lion faces, the symbol of Spain. A footstool of similar make is included. Also within the crate are bolts of purple velvet and silk.
“Señor Espina, have you ever heard of the concept of the ‘man cave’?”
Dealing with Padre Salvi was more infuriating. With his gaunt features, chalky pallor, and dark hollowed eyes he looked more frail and unthreatening than anything. Yet, in many ways, I would have an easier time trying to change the mind of a brick wall.
“Come now, Padre Salvi. I am not asking for much. I understand you are exhausted with All Soul’s Day, specially with how your chief sacristan has up and abandoned you. I completely understand if you do not want Pedro to be buried here at all, that is fine. That is completely fine. But even a criminal is owed a Christian burial, if instead somewhere else.”
“Thieves who steal from the church are damned in this world and in the next. The offerings given to the Mother Church are made holy, those who steal from them are nothing less than heretics! He is cast out, and no amount of your money will sway this good judgment!”
“It was your sacristan that has been stealing, Padre Salvi.”
“That indolent was surely an accomplice. Theirs is a family of thieves, like father like sons!”
“The boys are innocent. It was your sacristan. You know this.”
“The boys only escape punishment due to the intervention of more worthy others. I am not to be swayed by mere youth, there is evil even in young souls. They are much more easily tempted.”
Padre Salvi sees himself as above most the concerns of the mundane. Yes, even his lust for Maria Clara, no matter how hypocritical it seemed. Though he does not resort to violence as much as Padre Damaso, he does not forgive even half as easily.
After all, without temptation, there can be no saints. The priesthood in the Philippines had long solved the moral quandary of betraying their vows of chastity and poverty. All that is offered to the church becomes holy. I could perhaps trace his collapse to Crispin’s death – if he could murder a child and get away with it, what more could he do?
Without that trigger, he sees himself still completely righteous and should resist the sweet words of a worldly devil. He has just been betrayed by someone he had thought completely his ally, one trusted by Padre Damaso his predecessor, and the blood of the native truly showed itself as a corrupting influence.
I sigh. [Googol], spirit of knowledge, how do I convince Padre Salvi to lift his injunction upon Pedro’s corpse?
Superimposed upon my vision, a hallucinatory info box –
Thank you, [Googol]. Thanks for nothing.
I am reminded again how sometimes the witness of all human knowledge could be so astoundingly useless. I guess that is the meaning of having nearly infinite INT and absolutely zero WIS. Perhaps also that was the meaning of why mankind was given the gift of free will; something that not even the angels that sat at the foot of God been graced.
(Which by the way is odd to me, because then how could the angels Fall? Free Will thus is far more than just the capacity to disobey.)
“Padre Salvi, please. I am being polite and respectful of your authority here, that I do not simply have his body buried in the woods somewhere. I can pay all the relevant fees for the burial. Please, Padre Salvi. I cannot keep Pedro’s corpse pickled in a wine barrel at my house for much longer! That is simply bizarre.”
“I would question more why you would think it appropriate to do so in the first place, Don Crisostomo.”
“We have no morgue or morticians! We have no ice house. I had to do something.”
“Why is that? I question more why you feel responsible for the death of a thief. It is suspicious to me. Like that of a guilty conscience?”
“Padre Salvi, I am but two days returned from Europe. I have no way of having planned for anything like this to happen. This is charity. Yes. That is definitely it. Charity.
Power for its own sake is pointless, wealth left unused might as well not be there. The Good Book says that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to reach heaven, but I am still young, and if the rewards of my good works are to be claimed in this life than that is enough for now.”
He bulges one of his eyes in a suspicious leer. Padre Salvi is the one who actually looks like a ghoul. So why did the people of this town now shrink from me as Victor Von Frankenstein?
Don Anastasio did not laugh at my face when I first raised that complaint earlier this morning.
So now I say to him after reporting my (expected) failure “I am surprised, with your prestigious library, that you do not have the works of Mary Shelley. Frankenstein was written at the turn of this century, surely you have heard of it?”
He gestures to the shelves behind him. “As you can see, I have many treatises and personal accounts, but I rarely have time for frivolous novelas. I am a seeker of knowledge.”
“I see. I must disagree, however, for it is novelas – in fiction – that sometimes we can often see an exploration of the themes that make us human. As much as many novelas as indeed so much frivolous nonsense, a few more become classics by illuminating to the present and for future readers the pains and stirrings of their society. Cervantes, for example, is he not a novelist we both esteem?”
“I do not spurn novelists as such, Don Crisostomo, but even with Cervantes it is better to see first which novelas stand the test of time.”
“Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, was first written in 1818 and well-loved even today. If it is a work of horror, it is a creeping horror of our own mortality and prejudices. So I heartily recommend it you. I have a copy among my belongings.”
“If you say so, then I will certainly read it.”
“May I also store-“
“Don Crisostomo, you should know I do not care overmuch for the state of the body after death. I have lost even the bones of my wife to the inattentiveness of the town gravekeeper. But the man’s widow and her children now live here, and even I think it would be vile to inflict upon them such a gross reminder of their misfortune!” Though his face is sympathetic, his voice is firm. I cannot presume much more on his kindness. “You have chosen this. Keep it at your house.”
I press my fists to my forehead and groan. “It sure sounded like a clever solution at the time.” It was good enough for Admiral Horatio Nelson, after all! Wounded fatally at the Battle of Trafalgar by a stray musket bullet, his ship’s surgeon decided that rather than bury him at sea his body should be picked in brandy and brought home for a state funeral.
The old man now laughs. “Why are you hesitating now? Do as you would wish, be daring, as is the power of the youth.”
“No, now that people know of it, I cannot pull ‘The Mystery of the Disappearing Corpse in a Barrel’ else some might think Pedro would have risen as a zombie. No, he needs to be good and buried publicly, for I do feel partly responsible for setting this all in motion. I do not tarry with the occult.”
“A word used by the shamans in Haiti, the living dead.”
“And yet you say you do not tarry with the occult?”
I sigh heavily. “It does not exist. No one can bring life back into the dead, nor even the illusion of life. What is gone is gone, it is up for those left behind to carry on with the unfinished business they left behind.”
Old Tasio stared carefully at me. “In truth, Don Crisostomo, you puzzle me. You are clearly a clever young man, I can see that, but I believe it is most unwise to get yourself tangled in matters of politics and religion. Yet your eyes are clear, you are not hunting for a purpose or indulgent in life’s pleasures as so many of our youth. You have more in mind than just this matter of a family’s unjust fate. What are you truly after?”
“Is it really so hard to believe that I had heard of a possible tragedy and since I was in a position to try and mitigate the damage, I simply tried to help?” I pointed to my face. “What has changed? Is this really the face of a dishonest man? I have not lied or manipulated anyone since I have -”
I struck me with the force of a thunderbolt. I winced at the stabbing pain in my heart. Of all people, I tried to manipulate Maria Clara. No, of all the people in the world! Never her. I should not have done this. Googol, tell me, is fate rebounding against the vow I had sworn to the heavens?
“I have not come into this county with any ill intent. Don Anastasio… I am a mirror. I only give people what they want to see in themselves. It is not hard to find common interests, but sometimes people seem more intent in being divisive, in finding faults in others, just to feel superior in their differences. If you are aloof with me, I will be aloof with you, if you greet me as a friend, and then that is what I will be – and most honest of all I will be against my enemies.”
“Then what about your friends? Your family?”
“I will be among them myself, who only wants to see them all safe and happy.”
“Many have sought to only make sure of such an honest and upright deed, do take care that you do not lose them in the pursuit of power.”
My eyes are drawn to the dark, nearly bloody red liquid in my wine glass, then then towards the east, past the Pacific, and into America. I shiver at the murky vision of wide Cheshire grin.
“Don Anastasio, I already have power, of a sort, the extent of which will be made clear in the next few days. I only fear that without someone to temper my eagerness, like yesterday I will do much more unintentional damage.”
Maria Clara! You might not know it, but I have ill-treated you, and I am sorry.
The old man jerked back in surprise. “What? What is it, Don Crisostomo?”
“I beg you. I need advice.” I took a deep breath and clenched my fists. “I need love advice.”
I am not like my father, who ignored mass as inconsequential. I might not believe in purgatory, nor that exhorting dead saints to pray for my father’s soul would have greater spiritual force under the eye of god, but sitting there in the front pews staring Padre Salvi in the face discomfited the young priest.
It was petty revenge, since within my skull I could be capable of infinite patience and in split attentions write out and prepare in timeless labor the work which would shake the country. It was a stormy night while he said his mass, and the tolling of the bells irregular, and more did Padre Salvi understand the spiteful mistake caused by his tiredness. Even so his homily was about ungratefulness.
Afterwards, close to midnight I found the spot where my father’s bones were cast into the waters. It was during this time that the stars are defeated by the shining of so many candles. Graveyards become starfields of regret.
But my father now rests in a place with a greater vigil light, every night. I set afloat a handmade wooden boat upon which I placed flowers and a lit candle. It is in the deep of night, the skies had already cleared. The moon has risen high above the waters.
“Father, I am not a righteous person…” I confess to the waters. “I hope you will not be too disappointed in me. My power is unearned, my means are completely unfair. My whole existence is that of a cheat, there is no justice in me.
As a greater man than I once said: Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power. I greatly fear that I am not strong enough for this test.
Father, they say this is the day when the gap between the living and the dead are the weakest, so if you can hear me, please – give me a sign. I am afraid that what I will do is worse than wasted effort, but put Maria Clara in danger. All is pointless if she comes to harm. I know you have loved my mother greatly, so please, if you can, help me in this.
Give me a sign, if you can. The Angel of the Lord is with me, but of all the angels it is a bit thoughtless. I have another ally in the distance, but that one is almost more trouble than it is worth. I have cheats, I have mysterious abilities, but none of these things address how I am not in any way smarter than you and my mother have made me.
I ask for your blessing one last time, father. If at all possible, could someone else take up this abnormal duty? You are with God now, let me know, if there is at all someone who could do this instead, someone who would not cack it up!”
There is only the gentle stirrings of the guileless waters. Laguna de Bay makes no reply.
“I am going to cack this all up, someone do something. Take this away from me before everything goes careening out of control.”
Nothing but the breeze and the distant call of cicadas.
“THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE!” I shout at the lake and at the moon. “I am not half as smart as I pretend! The burden of so many lives… I have not done anything yet, but already it threatens to crush me! I am not the one you-“
The sound erupts in my skull and casts me down into the ground. My black tailored clothes become all soaked with mud and grime as I lie there wracked with blinding pain.
YOU ARE CHOSEN
Vos mos sumo aliis
YOU WILL CHOOSE OTHERS
Quod licet omnes vos estis
YOU ARE ALL THAT IS ALLOWED
Ne tenebrae ruinam!
LEST DARKNESS FALL!
I have returned home to sleep. All is dark and silent.
“Oh shut the hell up, Pedro. Nobody wants you,” I tiredly mutter as I throw off my formal clothes, nearly mindlessly dressing myself in a rougher but warmer camisa, and shuffling off to bed I go. I ignore the insulted look as my clothes passed through his face.
And so endeth the day of the dead.
I had a house burn down once, and everything in life burned, except my family, and it was so liberating. I didn’t have a bad moment about it. It sort of reinvigorated my interest in a lot of things.
– Sean Penn
This has been a ridiculous day, what the hell. It is the day before All-Saint’s Day, I was not expecting anything much to change. Damnation, Rizal. All that has changed is that I arrived one day earlier than he had written! Can I no longer trust his words as prophetic over my own fate? Perhaps I was foolish to do so in the first place.
I have been in Europe seven years, I no longer know all these people. The most I felt I could trust was his portraits of their personality. But in the short few hours after my return to my hometown, a man is dead. I did not even have to lift a finger.
This is not the sort of thing Walt Disney ever had to worry about. The only bright spot is seeing the two boys yell out happily and rush into their mother’s arms. Sisa is crying as she embraces them tightly, as if she would never let go.
A boy’s life has been saved, but did fate seek to balance the cost? I shake my head. No, the scales are still too far balanced in our favor. One death rather than three – for had things gone unchanged, Crispin would be dead, Sisa would become mad and then die in her son’s arms, and Pedro would be implicated in a plot to frame me as a subversive, thence to be executed as a rebel.
I look past the sobbing family and towards the old men waiting at the far end of my sala. They stand up in respect to the owner of the home. I have no more energy to smile. The only thing I can do is to present a façade of confidence.
“Don Ibarra!” Old Doroy exclaims worriedly.
“Don Crisostomo,” Don Anastacio Quesada responds more properly.
I bow at them. “I thank you for your patience, gentlemen.” Then I turn to the house caretaker, an old farmhand named Sendong, and instructed him “Inside the calesa is a box. Inside the box is a block of pure ice. Take it, chop it up, and prepare drinks. For us men, some wine with the ice. Same to the Guardia Civil waiting below, do not water the wine. For the family, the good chocolate. No questions. Go.”
With a dubious glance, he leaps to it. Like most manorial houses of this time, the Ibarra house has a live-in servant family. I can hear him yelling for his sons to move their lazy backsides.
I slump to a chair, and all but flow into its contours as the exhaustion finally grips me. Tasio and Old Doroy return to their seats in front of me, while more hesitantly Sisa and her children take the long sofa off to the side.
I turn to Old Tasio. “Thank you again for accepting my invitation so quickly, Don Anastacio. Ginang Narcisa. I believe you are all neighbors of a sort?”
“I could not refuse, when your invitation is so… strongly delivered… by the Guardia Civil. I did not realize you and the alferez were friends so quickly, Don Crisostomo.” He then turns to Sisa and gently says “Good woman, you have my condolences for your loss.”
“Thank you, Don Tasio. But… Don Crisostomo – thank you!” Sisa begins to say in between relieved hiccups “You saved my life! We cannot repay you enough…”
“Mother? What happened?” Basilio asks.
“… father… father is dead? Is that true?” Crispin follows.
Sisa only sobs. If her sons were her world, then her husband was the sun. But even with that light gone, she is only thankful that her children were still with her. Their loss is the one she cannot bear.
I sigh. “It has been an exhausting journey here to San Diego, but before I can sleep I believe I owe you all some answers?”
I tell them a sanitized version. I reported to them about what we had found at the empty church. It was, of course, the Sacristan Mayor that had taken the two coins he was accusing Crispin of stealing. After the boys had left, he ordered a servant to report the theft of one hundred pesos.
“A hundred pesos…?” Basilio gasps. “But I heard the cura say… make it a hundred pesos, someone will pay it.”
“Really now.” I smirk slightly. Crispin cringes away from me and hides his face in his mother’s hair. Basilio still has that disturbingly intense stare. Children, you are not as Rizal has written you, why? It is as if the boy is expecting… that I would… lie.
At no point did I ever consider that this smart boy would consider me an enemy. Fair enough. Evil begins when you begin to treat people as tools.
I exhale and sag back into my seat, leaning with my fingers propping up the sides of my forehead. “That explains a few things- if the Sacristan Mayor had sent out that notice to the Guardia Civil, it is not because he got greedy thinking of this chance to excuse an even larger theft as you boys bearing a grudge. No, it is because he mistakenly thought it was an order.
Either way, that was his mistake, setting everything on this day into motion.”
Because after the 9 o’clock mass when Padre Salvi heard the Sacristan Mayor reporting about what he had done, realized that a man willing to blame the thefts onto a boy again would likely also be willing to blame the boy for theft the first time.
Sisa’s face is swollen and purpling. With her words earlier, that I had saved her life, it looks like Basilio is putting together just how his or why father died. Pedro was chosen by the sacristan as the new scapegoat. Unfortunately, the man had also believed that the boys did steal the money, and that Sisa was hiding it from him.
“To understand why this happened, you must understand why you were sent away. For… reasons…” here I match Basilio’s intent gaze with my own “Yes, reasons, your family is under the protection of myself as patriarch of the Ibarra, or that of de Los Santos, Capitan Tiago’s family. Any attack upon you now is considered an attack upon ourselves.”
“Reasons?” Tasio asks owlishly.
“Oh look a distraction, I mean, our drinks have arrived.”
On the table in front of us, the servants brought out a tray of ice in a crystal bowl, small wine glasses, several bone china cups, and a bottle of wine in a bucket filled with ice.
“Like this,” I instruct the children. “Fill your cup with ice, and then pour the chocolate over it.”
Crispin marvels at the floating chunks of ice in his drink. “It is cold. Mother, it is cold!” he squeals out. “It is sweet! I didn’t know you could drink tsokolate like this!”
“So this is ice…?” Basilio whispers.
“Children, thank Don Crisostomo for his generosity! We don’t deserve this indulgence!” Such deep, rich chocolate was the daily drink only of the wealthy. Guests were served weak chocolate if they were considered unimportant, not to offer any refreshment at all was considered an insult.
The two boys bow their heads. “Thank you Don Crisostomo!”
“It is nothing. Ice is just frozen water. I know how to cheaply make ice, and soon enough we will be able to sell ice here in San Diego.” Old Doroy looks up sharply at that.
I sigh. “I truly did not expect this chaos to happen on the day I returned. The least I can do now is to offer you shelter after your house burned down.”
“Don Crisostomo, as much as I do not myself care for the opinions of the townsfolk, it might be best if… I offered shelter instead. We are neighbors, after all.” People already called him mad, it would be much less scandalous.
“That is fine too. Thank you, sir.” I look up from my drink and raise my goblet as if in salute. “But please at least stay for dinner.”
I am so tired. But I cannot let what happened today leave me paralyzed with fear. I bow to Basilio and Crispin, and I cannot explain why I feel the need to apologize.
“You two – take care of yourself, and your mother. You will be very important to the future of this country.”
Three days have passed since then.
“Crisostomo.” Maria Clara’s eyes are, for the first time, clouded. Her tone drips with disapproval.
“Crisostomo, I have been hearing strange things about you.”
“Maria Clara, I am not sure – what things?”
“Crisostomo, have you been cruel? They say you beat an old gravekeeper near to death, and that you had sent the Guardia Civil to shoot a man dead.”
I put my face into my palms. Oh the humanity.
In the town of San Diego lived an old man who loved books, named Don Anastasio Manuel Marcao y Quesada. In his youth his mother had feared his studies of philosophy would lead to impiety and thus imperil his immortal soul. Seeing as he had no small ability in this pursuit nor lack of courage in expressing his view, there was indeed a strong danger of insulting the priests or veering into outright heresy.
Therefore she gave him an ultimatum; either he would take his talents to the priesthood, or quit his studies in college. He chose to abandon his studies for he wished to get married.
Yet it came to pass that in the same year he lost his mother and then his wife to illness. He then could only turn to books for solace, and thus freed from all obligations began to pursue his studies to the exclusion of all else; including his business. His obsession eventually ruined what wealth was left to him by his Chinese ancestors, leaving him with what was enough to maintain his lifestyle.
In town he was called Philosopher Tasio, Pilosopo Tasio by those who recognized the volume of information trapped within his mind. More called him Tasio the Mad, Tasiong Sinto-sinto, for his manners and ideas were peculiar and sacrilegious to the townsfolk.
He was, of course, a close friend to the late Don Rafael Ibarra.
So when the Guardia Civil approached him, he felt a touch of both fear and disdain. For these men exemplified the adage ‘give an inch and take a mile’, with a base cunning to exploit any display of weakness. The old man grit his teeth and stopped in the middle of the road as they approached. Even with the state of his financial affairs, he was still a part of the town aristocracy.
“Don Anastasio? The Alferez sent us to ask you for a small favor.”
“A good man will obtain favor from the Lord; but He will condemn a man who devises evil,” he replied. “Favors are the most weakest of currency among men; friends do not owe it to each other, and cannot be forced to action should the promise prove unwilling. If you have already done one favor, why not another? But the favors owed to men are not like the favor that God grants, they are heavy, and can too many granted puts the one giving them under the power of the one who asks. In this way kings have ruined many of their more annoying courtiers.
So tell me, for what reason does the Alferez want to put me in his debt?”
The Guardia Civil sergeant curled up his lips, and his bushy mustache drooped low over his chin. “We are simple soldiers, we do not understand nor care for these things. We have only our orders. Our orders are to find you, and ask your assistance leading us where the sabungero Pedro and his wife named Sisa live. They are not under arrest or to be harmed, so you might be able to calm them down and allow us to bring them to Don Crisostomo Ibarra’s house.”
The words ‘and why should I do this?’ died on Old Tasio’s lips. “Don Crisostomo? Not the barracks?”
“The Sacristan Mayor has accused the boys of Pedro and Sisa as thieves, but Don Crisostomo has shown that it was the Sacristan that was stealing all along. He has now fled from the church, but not before sending out the servants to find Pedro, implicating him as the thief.”
Old Tasio understood then, that it was not the Alferez behind this scheme.
Sisa’s house was a typical bahay kubo, a nipa house on stilts with walls and floors made out of split bamboo. Raising the house was clever in terms of sanitation, for rats cannot get up to the house and find places to hide, while dust and grime would fall through the slats in the floor to the shadowed area beneath. This area could be used to shelter animals, and ensured the home would be comfortably dry even during the worst floods. That the house is so lightly built meant it had little to fear from earthquakes, but of course more from being blown over by a typhoon. Fire was a rare danger, since homes such as these were rarely built side to side, but like Sisa’s with a fenced-in vegetable garden around it.
And from within issued a woman’s fearful wail.
“Do you think I should be thankful for whatever scraps you show me? I know what they say about me, that I do not care about this family, but I didn’t raise my children to be thieves! You did!”
“Please, it’s a lie! They would never!”
“Where is it, woman?! Where did you hide the money?!”
“Please… I haven’t seen them. For a week now, I haven’t seen my sons!”
“Those little pesos they give, do you think I give a damn? I care more for my fighting cock because a good bird can earn thirty, fifty pesos in a day! He’s worth more than a hundred pesos! He’s worth more than all of you! You scrabble for a couple of pesos, stupid! So many stupid people all around me, who know nothing, but still think themselves better than a mere gambler! Timid and useless!
And that stupidity you have given to your sons! They see something shiny and like stupid monkeys they pick it up!”
There was another loud smack, and the sound of cracking clay pots, and then only sobbing.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph!” Old Tasio cried out. “We must help.”
For while it the neighbors might cross themselves and mutter about how wicked it is to beat a virtuous inoffensive woman as Sisa, even if she was your wife, none would bother to get up and interfere in the matters of another family. Much less the Guardia Civil. Beating your wife was not actually a crime, for if so then the Alferez would not
“You still have to bring them in, yes? Come on, let us at least interrupt!”
“… I suppose, but we are not under your command, Don Anastasio.”
Old Tasio shouted “Pedro! Enough! It is I, Tasio, and I have the Guardia Civil with me!”
“Putang ina!” was the panicked cry from inside.
“If something happens to your wife now, it will be on your head! Show your face and come with us, we will sort this out! Your boys have been falsely accused!”
“No! You – you’re just like them, Old Tasio, the Lunatic! You lie! I won’t be fooled – you want to kill me!”
“He is not going to show his face, because of course if we can see him we can shoot him,” the sergeant opined with a dismissive snort.
“If we charge in there, he could attack us with his bolo…” the soldier beside him said quietly.
“Well, he cannot stay in there forever!” the old man retorted.
The group stared up at the poor house. Only Old Tasio really cared about Sisa’s life.
“Maybe we could smoke him out?” said the young soldier from earlier.
It sounded crazy, but it could work. With such large windows, it would be easy enough to escape such a fire even if it spread quickly. Some of the walls were even woven sawali, split bamboo mats often used as bedding by the poor.
But the fire, kindled by gunpowder, spread alarmingly quickly.
There was a crashing noise, and a scream.
Pedro fled into the forests from the back window of his house. Old Tasio braved to enter the burning hut, and forced the two Guardia Civil to drag out the battered Sisa.
“Well, they do say the hen is more valuable than the chicks,” said the sargeant.
Old Tasio agreed. “Let us take her to safety, if you want to draw the boys out, then this might help.”
The hut burned merrily behind them, but the old man was relieved that it least the Guardia Civil did not need to shot anyone that day.
Yet less than thirty minutes later, blood spattered across the road.
“Is this your first time seeing someone be killed, senor?” asked the sergeant with a faintly scornful tone. “Fool rushed at us with his bolo, this a good kill. A good kill!”
Old Tasio stared from the body to Sisa, kneeling insensate on the ground. In the end, he wondered, had Pedro found again the will to care at seeing his wife being taken away, or had he merely been mad at rage at having his merry world upended so easily? He had followed them to ambush the group by the roadside, rather than flee into the next town as the trio had assumed.
His first swing could have killed the younger Guardia Civil had he not managed to bring his rifle up to block in time; the damage sure to get him scolded later. The officer shot Pedro in the chest with his pistol.
To rescue, or to revenge himself upon his tormentors – no one could say anymore. A Filipino’s blood can boil hot, and when running amok there is no sin.
“No such thing… no such thing at all…” Old Tasio whispered.
The Ibarra home was at the other end of town. Sisa was spared any more humiliation from being carried like an invalid into town by the arrival of Don Crisostomo’s personal calesa.
The Ibarra home, unlike the De Los Santos home of Capitan Tiago, was much less ostentatious. It was, however, a fair bit larger as befits the heart of a hacienda. The family of Ibarra did not own any other real estate beyond the town of San Diego.
Crisostomo Ibarra was aghast at seeing the Guardia Civil drag an unconscious woman into his house. “What happened?!”
Similarly ignoring the rituals of politeness, Old Tasio asked the young man “Don Crisostomo. What have you done? How did you know when to send the calesa as we needed?”
“I have just arrived from Manila less than an hour ago. I returned from Europe just yesterday! I have no idea why whatever is happening!” He pointed towards Sisa, now sitting bonelessly upon his sofa. He sent out the calesa as soon as the third member of the troop detached from the sergeant’s group had arrived at his home. “What led to this?!”
Old Tasio reported to him what happened. He was disturbed by the company the young man kept, but was calmed by how he still meant well.
“Wait, that is all it takes? Everything falls apart for a man’s vice? I had asked the Alferez for a favor, to send his troops out to find you that you might help to lower the tension.”
“… and I have failed at it,” the old man added feebly.
Ibarra sighed. “Don Anastasio, forgive me, it is my fault. I had meddled in things beyond my grasp.” The young man looked off to the distance. “Which is better – to know what is happening, but have no control; or not to know anything but still able to act? Ahh, this is the terror of the human condition.”
“What do you mean?” asked Old Tasio.
“The blood at the floor was chicken blood,” Ibarra said in a pained non-sequitur. “And it was Padre Salvi that broke the offering box, after his Sacristan Mayor had already fled.”
Old Tasio blinked, in dismayed realization that it was probably the loss of his prized cock that maddened Pedro so. Ah, to run amok over a cock. Only in the Philippines.
Being a sacristan or altar boy was by most standards a cushy job for a child. Their duties involved cleaning the grounds, laying out the priest’s garments and helping him put it on before and after mass, and taking care of the church’s goats. Only those sanctified or the innocent children may handle the implements of the holy mass. The washing, the cooking, the heavy housework – all of these were done by other servants.
The Guardia Civil would sometimes seize Padre Salvi’s sacristan when they happen to meet, bring him to station and force him to clean the barracks, and then Padre Salvi would fine the sacristan for missing his duties. So sometimes the sacristan would have to run, and then if the Guardia Civil have to chase him they will have to beat him up before bringing him in. In return, Padre Salvi would vastly overcharge them for church services and tell the townsfolk about their vices.
This rivalry was an inconvenience suffered mainly by the underlings of the two powers in town.
Children however, were more easily missed. They were not beaten up as badly by the soldiers, but instead hassled by the other sacristan and the cooks. They too could be fined for missing work, or something as small as not ringing the bells in perfect unison.
Thus the boys could not leave no matter what. Basilio could scarcely leave his brother alone. Without this work, what would become of their family?
Thus why when being told he was being dismissed, Basilio’s first instinct was to cry out “Please, no!”
Padre Salvi sneered. His eyes were bloodshot, his pallor even more sickly than the usual. The carriage bringing him home had its horses nearly dead from being driven to exhaustion. “Children, you are not wanted! To Capitan Tiago’s house with you! I no longer have the energy to spare for your stupidity.”
“But what about the two gold pieces, padre?” asked the Sacristan Mayor.
Padre Salvi turned about and began hitting him with his rattan cane. There was not much force behind it, for though his temper was viler than the usual he was tired and wanted to sleep. “Someone else has decided to make it their concern. Just get these grubby children out of my sight!”
As he shuffled off to his bed, he angrily muttered “Thirty two pesos are trifling sum? Hah! Then make it a hundred! I care not! Let him pay it, then!”
They arrived at the church with nothing but the clothes on their back and left with nothing but the clothes on their back. Without even the week’s pay they were owed.
“What do we do now, Basilio?” Crispin said as they trundled along barefoot towards the de Los Santos residence.
“I don’t know…” the older boy replied. When his little brother had been accused of stealing, he knew that was impossible. Just as impossible to convince anyone otherwise, specially when it was the Sacristan Mayor doing the accusing. They had only small voices.
“What will mother think?” Crispin continued to wail. “What will mother eat?”
“Maybe there will be something at Capitan Tiago’s place.”
“You should have paid them, brother,” Crispin said after a while. “I have not even a cuatro on me, they have taken even that away. If you had paid, then they would not us thieves, and we would not have been sent away.”
Basilio bit back the obvious retort, for it was not his brother’s fault. “I have only two pesos for the month, I have been fined three times. The sacristan mayor said you stole two onzas, which are worth thirty-two pesos. There will still be nothing for mother to eat.”
Mexican gold doubloons, which were still valid currency in the Philippines. The pieces of eight, one might say. The Philippines had only been introduced into the decimal system of coinage by Isabela II, or about thirty years ago.
Slowly the younger boy tried to count out thirty-two, “Six hands and two fingers, and each finger a peso – and each finger, how many cuartos, brother?”
“One hundred and sixty.”
Crispin’s eyes widened. “One hundred sixty!” He looked bewildered at his open palms. “How many hands is that?”
Basilio stopped for a while and thought. It was not division going through his mind, but adding ten over ten. Two hands are ten, ten hands are fifty, therefore twenty hands are a hundred. So there are sixty left, how many hands is that? Two thirties, and each thirty is six hands! That sixty is twelve, so twenty added to twelve- “Thirty-two hands,” he said.
He relished the sheer awe his younger sibling gave him. Crispin then looked at his fingers again. “Each finger thirty two hands, and each finger of that a cuartro. So many cuatros! Now I wish I had stolen the money!”
Basilio cuffed at the side of the head. “Never say that! Do not even think of being a thief!”
“B-but if I had, then I could produce it when they ask for it…” he sniffled “And, and – mother – so much money we cannot even count them, we could buy slippers and an umbrella for mother, and, and – so much money, now I understand. They would be right to beat me to death for it, but at least for you and mother – you would have food and clothes! Now we have none at all! What will we tell mother?”
Basilio could only sigh.
“What will father do to us?” Crispin continues to cry.
“Most likely nothing,” Basilio could only say. “He will just hit mother again as she tries to protect us.”
A hundred centavos to a peso. Eight cuartos make five centavos. Five thousand one hundred twenty cuartos – this number floated just beyond the edge of Basilio’s consciousness. And someone would just drop this into the offering box! The world of the rich was so mysterious and so far away.
There was, of course, nothing for them at Capitan Tiago’s place.“Get away from here!” one of the house servants shouted at them. “Filthy beggars! Lazy little bloodsuckers! Begone!”
“B-but, the cura told us to come here. He wouldn’t lie… I think?”
“Maybe he wouldn’t, but you would. Shoo! There is no work for you here!”
The caretaker closed the heavy wooden door in their faces. Even thumping at it with all their strength, their small fists would barely make a sound.
“What do we do now?” Crispin asked in a voice beyond whimpering.
Basilio pressed his forehead to the door and he wanted to scream. They were just being shoved around by adults. Is it fun? He wanted to cry, but if he cried then Crispin would cry, and they would both never stop.
“Are we going to starve?” Crispin asked. “Should we go home now? I think… to die, if it we are at least with Mother, then it is better.”
Basilio began to thump his head against the door. For a moment he almost gave in, but hurting himself to make the rage go away would do nothing. His brother would have to drag his bloody-faced carcass back home, and he was so small. He would not make it. And now for some reason the thought of it made him chuckle darkly.
“No. No, Crispin,” he said after a while. “We stay.”
It was still early in the morning and so the brothers sat down by the door.
“Away, you smelly brats!“ The house servant from before now brandished a horse whip.
The two brothers moved away, but still sat down resting their backs on the outer wall. They had a full view of the road leading to town.
It was noon. Visitors and workers had come and left.
“What are you still doing here?” asked the house caretaker. “We will not feed you. Go away or I’ll set the dogs on you!”
“If we are to die here being torn apart by dogs, then that’s that. But the priest told us to come here, and until we know better we will stay.”
The old man clacked his tongue and turned away.
“Brother, I am hungry…” Crispin said. It was well past noon.
As the day passed and the sun grew hotter, the younger boy was tempted to go off into the shade. Basilio even said it was fine; he would wait and keep and eye out. So, excepting only the need to piss, he chose to stay and sit. Who knew doing nothing could be so painful! And to think he had hated being made to do chores before.
Basilio sat there with his knees up to his chin, his arms wrapped around his legs, exposing only his eyes peering with eagle intensity towards the road.
“Be patient, Crispin. Something will happen. We just have to endure.”
“Do you really think the padre had something for us to do? I no longer think he sent us here to help us at all. I don’t think he helps anyone at all.”
Basilio licked his dry lips and said “That doesn’t matter anymore.”
After even more time, the brothers saw a dust cloud in the distance, and shortly the thundering of horse’s hooves. A carriage approached, and as it drew closer Crispin qualid and clung to his brother’s shirt sleeves upon seeing the hat and blue uniform of the Guardia Civil. They were clinging to its sides.
The two brothers were set coughing helplessly by the dust kicked up by the horses as the calesa stopped right in front of them. The two Guardia Civil skipped off the calesa’s side and hauled up the two boys, caked over with dust mixed with sweat.
“Come on, you little pigs!”
“Now, now, there will be none of that. Gently, I said.” The third person and sole occupant of the calesa stepped out. “Ah, all that running around and it turns out no one has come here to Capitan Tiago’s house? It is as expected. The Sacristan Mayor would not send them out to where they would find you, after all.”
Basilio stared dully up at him. The young mestizo did not wear a hat even on such a bright day. He worse black clothes; black as sin itself, a part of Basilio’s mind commented, black as if in mourning; and he had such a strangely exultant smile. What could make this rich man smile with such relief?
“You boys were smart enough to stay in one place. Excellently sensible. To run implies guilt.”
“… wh-…” Basilio coughed to clear his dry throat, “…who are you, Señor?”
“I am Don Crisostomo Ibarra. And until Capitan Tiago’s family arrives in San Diego, you will be staying with me. Do not mind the Guardia Civil, they are here for your protection.”
Basilio felt light-headed with so many questions, so many burdensome emotions, but in the end settled with one flat word:
“Your house is on fire, your mother is fine – she is perfectly safe, do not worry – but your father is dead. Any questions? No time to explain.” He pointed to the carriage. It was painted black. The horses were also black. “Now get into the calesa.”
Crispin reached fearfully for his brother.
Basilio could not help but to laugh, and then say again in a completely flat voice “You are a suspicious fellow.”
Ibarra rubbed at his temples as if he had a headache. “Ex ore innocentium,” he muttered tiredly.
Basilio stared at him until Ibarra admitted: “Yes, there is candy in the calesa.”
As a rule, said Holmes, the more bizarre a thing is the less mysterious it proves to be. It is your commonplace, featureless crimes which are really puzzling, just as a commonplace face is the most difficult to identify.
– Arthur Conan Doyle
This is not supposed to happen.
If was there anything I could count on, it should have been my people’s lethargy. They are slow to move to action, suddenly to burn with nearly explosive force and then to burn out again quickly. We can go insane with rage – mag-amok – the word from which ‘to run amuck’ is taken. The frenzied Malay. In the heat of murderous passion, there is no guilt, no hesitation, a man is gloriously free.
But until that moment, they will endure. They will bottle it up, they will trust that in the end God will account for all in all balance.
“He looks scared, Berto.”
The other, taller Guardia furrows his brows to look at my face, then grips his rifle with both hands. “How do we know you are not the thief?”
“If I were the thief, why would I be waiting here?” I reply.
“It is much easier for a well-dressed man to be a thief. No one would suspect him,” Juan adds. His face is broad, dark, and thuggish. “If he runs, we should chase him.”
I nod. “Wise.” That was surprisingly insightful, I did not expect it from someone with such a thug-like face. Have I actually met that rarity, a competent man of the Guardia Civil?
Damn it, now I cannot even go off to look for the boys. Them… I do not even know what they look like. [Googol] why are you so useless right when you are most needed?! I need your knowledge less than a dog’s nose!
All right, fine, so I have been too arrogant throwing money around! Boasting as if it were my own, the knowledge others have earned with their own hard work! There are some things that I cannot solve by myself! Just because it is my dream to see this nation strong does not mean I have the power or the right to treat people as mere tools to my goal. Of course there are things beyond my control!
Now please! You have made me care, I am afraid – please, help me!
You do not live here, spirit of the twenty-first century! But if I cannot save even just these two boys… if this little thing fails, then how can I hope to succeed in the greater trials? I do not know what happened, what has changed in the inexhorable march of history? Do not do this to me!
You do not need to teach me humility.
I can hear it.
What is that? I recall that in Rizal’s work, Basilio learns of his brother’s death through a dream. In this time, we believe that premonitions come to those who need them. The skepticism for psychic phenomena you have shared with me, but hardly can I discount such a possibility when I am a living a persistent psychic phenomenon.
Basilio… has a very open mind, strong and resolute even in its youth. There – a distant whisper – I can feel it. He is alive, and he is afraid. What of Crispin, the younger? Is it still his fate to die early? No… Basilio is concerned, not grief-stricken.
I exhale in relief.
So I see. My mission, therefore, is to find them and place them under my… under Maria Clara’s protection, before someone causes them harm. But I cannot do that without first finding out what has happened.
“So be it.” I nod my head. I slap at my thighs and pick up my cane. “Well then, I suppose I should go with you! But it would be pointless to come here and not go inside, so take me with you to make sure I do not run away.”
While Juan has that odd sensibility that could only be self-destructive in these times, Berto is more practical. He knows there is little he can do to stop my intrusion into their investigation because they are not here to investigate. They are here as proxies for the unspoken war between the alferez and the curate as masters of this town.
I smile thinly. And just because I might find them interesting, does not mean they are not actually horribly abusive people in their own time.
Better if I have these people at my back than in front of me.
This is not possible.
It is the late afternoon, there should always be something going on in the rectory. Someone should at least be waiting in case there is a visitor looking for the parish priest. Someone should be looking to tend the church’s goats.
There is blood in the dining hall.
Damnation! If I make a prayer “Please let not that boy die”, what sort of useless angel would think brain damage is good enough?! This had better be not that boy’s blood.
The offering box is here, and it is empty.
“Should we start asking you to turn out your pockets, señor?” Berto quips.
I let out an amused ‘heh’. “My pockets are not big enough for this.” I rub at my chin. “This is strange.”
“Murder usually is,” Juan comments dully.
“Nobody is here, this makes no sense!” I hiss through my teeth. The boys are safe, but they are not here. I can feel it in my bones, this is my mission. How glorious it is, to live a life with meaning – how annoying it is when said meaning is locked behind compulsory stages!
“Why do you think that, señor?”
“From what I have heard of Padre Salvi, he is a very constientous person, you know? From the outside he looks like a frail man suffering from self-inflicted starvation, but inside those sunken eyes you can almost hear his mind going click-click, everything in its proper place, click-click, you might think a man like that has no strong feelings, but you can’t try to be a saint without strong feelings.”
“Surely!” Berto haws, “what a fine thing it would be for San Diego to have its own saint!”
“Everyone in their proper place under heaven. But a saint isn’t afraid to suffer the ills and the contempt of temporal powers. No wonder the alferez and the cura butt heads. I do not think it was the same during Padre Damaso’s time. It would be a pain to live with a saint, don’t you think? They always expect the most out of people.”
Juan the Guard squats and runs his finger down the floorboards. “The alferez would catch a sacristan sometimes, and order him to clean our barracks. It’s the only time the place gets clean, really-” He looks up and says still in that bland voice that unintentionally sounds impudently judgmental to the ear, “then the cura would fine him for abandoning his duties.”
I chuckle. “Saints sure a troublesome existence, yes?”
“Señor? Should you be saying that in this place? That sounds like…” Heresy, he mouths out. Ibarra, now he remembers, was I not the son of the man cast out for being a heretic?
“Oh please, like the alferez himself sees it is only convenient to pay to have a saint pray more efficaciously for his sins. Him, and I, and you, we are men comfortable in our skins. Do not worry about it. I do not mind you hearing it from me, because only women delight in gossip. Are we not men able to speak freely to each other?”
For a change, Juan says “I have nothing to say.”
“Heh.” I lean against the wall and put my hands in my pockets. This would be a fine time for a cigar, specially since tobacco is one of the Philippines’ main exports. It is a manly habit in these times. Unfortunately I know better, it is a filthy habit, and I will not approach Maria Clara stinking of fumes.
“… why would they all be away? Someone should have remained behind.” I begin pacing around the bloodstained ground. “With this table disturbed here, it looks like someone was injured hitting their head against it. If there was a body here, it would have been moved. So why would there be no one behind to answer or at least delay questions?”
Berto points out “You were here.”
I wave that aside. “There are plenty of people who can witness that I have just arrived from the cemetery. Whatever happened here… this blood, it is dark. It happened hours ago.”
The dining hall is a simple one, with wooden tables and benches. It is lit by large windows with grilled wood shutters, and hanging from its ceiling is a candelabra. Sunlight is streaming and rebounding off the whitewashed walls. Damn it, Rizal, this is a far too positive an atmosphere for a murder mystery.
“It could be tulisanes!” Berto suddenly cries out in alarm and raises his rifle. “They are all gone because they are being held hostage!”
“In the middle of the day? How?” Juan blandly objects.
Berto starts pointing at the exits with his rifle. “Or… maybe they are all stabbed to death, and locked in a room somewhere. Maybe the bandits are still here.”
Juan points at me at me again. Berto follows, aiming at me with his rifle.
I groan but carefully keep my cane pointed away. “If you must accuse me, know that in a crime, the one who fits the three Ms is most likely the culprit. The Means, the Motive, and the Money.
The means – how could I have done this, when I have only just come from the cemetery on the carriage? The motive – what reason have I for doing this? I am wealthy enough that the offerings after mass are nothing to me. The money – where is it?” I pat my sides. “Offerings are mostly coins, I have a billfold of my own money. I am your ally here, not your enemy.”
“Maaaybe…” Berto lowers his gun. “What do you know about this?”
“Nothing. Who told you that a robbery has happened? When were you notified?”
“Should you be so asking so many questions here?”
“Why not? It is no crime to ask. Let us truly be frank with each other here, as uninvolved observers. I will owe you both each a bottle of good wine after this.”
Berto purses his lips, and then gives up to the shameless bribe, saying “One of the sacristan, early in the morning. But the alferez was asleep, so we waited. And then it is only now that he sent us off.”
Ah. It is a calculated insult, then. The alferez was trying to tell Padre Salvi; you who preach from the pulpit denouncing me as a person of degenerate ways, cut down your pride before you dare ask me for help. You have no power over me.
“I see. But this does not look like two hundred pesos missing from the offertory box. If this is a murder, then it I believe it happened in between that complaint, and now.” I look up. “Shall we look at all the rooms to see if there is a person conveniently tied up somewhere that could tell us what happened?”
Of course such a convenient solution would not happen.
After going around opening doors, we have returned to the dining room. I sigh as I slump on a bench. I am getting nothing from this place. This is a bit bullhockey. I have knowledge of what happens a continent away, but I have no post-cognition for something only a few hours past? Why is it that magic should have rules. Why do miracles allow for the possibility of failure? This is crowbites, [Googol]. This is blankshoots. Why are you so inadequate in moments of crisis?
Rizal wrote of my life as a tragedy, please do not change genres on me so suddenly.
“Something so close to a church should be holy, right?” Juan asks. Belatedly I realize he is asking me. “If the priest goes to sleep here, it should be blessed?”
“… no? The church is sanctified because saying the mass invites the Holy Spirit, but just any room isn’t made holy because a priest lives there. If it were that simple, saints wotuld not be a special existence.”
“We are not safe here. We should leave.”
Berto agrees. “The walls are eating people.”
I tilt my head. “Really? Really, gentlemen?” This is the conclusion you have reached on this bright sunny day?
“We should go,” Juan insists with rare force.
Berto shrugs, turns to me and says “I must ask you to come with us, señor.”
“Of course, of course, but someone should stay. If people knew there is no one in the church, would they not start stealing its treasures?” Aaand I can just see their eyes light up with opportunity. I narrow my eyes.
It really should be an unacceptable risk for this place to be so empty. There must be a non-supernatural explanation.
“Look, one of you has to stay behind and the other should accompany me back to your barracks to let the Alferez know about this, because of course I cannot clear myself as a suspect.”
The two guardia look at each other. Though they are cousins and old friends, they know that the one left behind would be blamed for anything missing. It is, in fact, inevitable. No one would believe their honesty.
On the other hand, it is well known that Juan was a person who rarely spoke to the point of being called dumb, better that than open his mouth and start offending everybody. It is always Berto who was expected to deal with people, he provided the muscle.
Juan, who is called Juan Bolok, depending on intonation meaning either ‘bull’ or ‘rotten’, nods. He is prepared to take the blame, his body is strong and his face already ugly. He has no fear of beatings or being made to pay fines. His is not a nature bent to cruelty, but expecting no mercy from others he is just an unwilling to give it to anyone under his hand.
He volunteers to stay behind.
In this place with the walls that are eating people.
This insight you offer me, spirit of knowledge, it is not just about technology and history, is it not? The soul is timeless, and it is through that connection that my mind is awash with extrasensory information.
I see. Small as it is, as unformed and mundane as it may be, even this young man with a face more like a boulder than a human being has a dream. Even though he may have committed more heinous acts than that poor gravedigger, for some mysterious reason it spurs from me more empathy.
The Dream is different from ambition. It certainly is not a desire or a craving for more things. It has nothing to do with greed or lust.
Who is the Alferez? The Alferez is a Spaniard, born in Spain, and sent to the Philippines through no virtue of his own. Broad and bellicose, and from him I do not detect the dream. This is a man who does not wish to break through into tomorrow.
Unlike Tiniente Guevarra, he knows how to play the game. Only a pure-blooded Spaniard can hold command higher than Lieutenant, and this is why Guevarra for his honor and long service is seen as a shame upon Spanish dignity. The alferez is a rank equivalent to sub-lieutenant or chevalier, and he rose through the ranks simply by being… accessible.
There are nearly seven million souls in this country, and only about eleven thousand soldiers to keep the peace. Forget police work. If the Guardia Civil were actually required to make the effort, they would die from overwork.
He is satisfied here in this town, for as town chief of the Guardia Civil is rulership is supreme; people plied him with gifts and flattery so that he does not feel any need to flex his authority. All except Padre Salvi; who has spurned all his gestures of friendship, and instead levies litanies about his sins. He detests this immunity like a little king of Italy grousing at the Pope’s lack of willingness to play nicely.
Even more than that; Bernardo Salvi is young tree, strongly rustling in the wind. Insuffrable. The Alferez, though also a peninsular, is like one tree already claimed by the tropical jungle, choked with vines and eaten hollow from the inside by termites. Yet if it falls, there will be no sound.
He married, while still but a corporal, a washer-woman of the Guardia Civil – a decision that he now deeply regrets. Though she is perhaps more conscientious in reading the reports sent to him than even he. For this, she is called the ‘muse of the guardia civil’, despite her nasty temper, able to command the men with all the authority of her husband who beats her. His life, once so conveniently at ease when not broken by the bitter haranguing of his wife, now sees as his only ambition to inflict upon Padre Salvi whatever small inconveniences he could ply. In this, the torment of their social betters, at least this sinister pair finds temporary conciliation. So goes the dreamless life of the Alferez Luis Gaspar Espina.
“A murder in the church?! Tell me more!” his aquiline visage lights up with interest.
Berto and I glance at each other. “Sir -“ he begins to say.
“I will hear Don Crisostomo-,“ he waves away the report of his own soldier.
Wow, really? I spend a few moments thinking about it, then it occurs to me that it is probably as much about institutional racism as that his men, deliberately trained to lack initiative lest there be another uprising, are appallingly inept at giving reports. Even a civilian could phrase things more easily for his ears. This is a man who does not disguise how he despises the men under his command, and it is well returned.
I cough into my fist. “Then with your permission, let me briefly lay out the known facts of the case –
To speak of my involvement in this case: I had recently arrived in San Diego from Manila, little more than an hour ago. After a brief visit at the cemetery, I had the carriage bring me to the church. There I had hoped to pay my respects to Padre Salvi. But seeing no one in the church, I had decided to wait outside in the breeze and watch the scenery of my hometown I had long missed. It was there that I met your two men, who had come to respond to the report of two hundred pesos missing from the church.
Fact one. The report was given in the early morning, while I was still en route. Therefore this case of the empty church and the broken offertory box is separate from the case of the missing two hundred pesos.
Fact two. I accompanied Guardia Berto and Juan inside the rectory because while I can prove that I was at the cemetery during the time this case might have happened, it is not something that can be proven in situ. Thus, I commend their shrewdness in not letting a suspect out of sight.
There we verified that there is no one inside the church or the rectory; not in the kitchens, not in the yards, not in any of the rooms. It was completely deserted.
Fact three. This makes no sense. Padre Salvi would not leave the church completely unattended. There are too many things to steal in the place, far more than just the offering box.
Fact four. The blood on the floor was dark and dry. It is several hours old. But if so, why was it not ordered to be cleaned?
Fact five. The broken offering box. Though it is conceivable that two hundred pesos could be stolen from the offering box after mass, the box is rarely left unattended. I have said that there are many more valuable things that can be stolen from the church – but offerings have one advantage. They are mainly coins and some small paper bills, much easier to dispose of than having to sell off gold and silver wares. So why only break open the results of the morning mass?
The breaking of the offering box could not have occurred at the same time as the blood on the floor, for the same reason as before – Padre Salvi or anyone of course should have picked it up and put it away.
Fact six. In a crime, the one who has the Means, the Motive, and the Money is most likely the one to have committed the deed.
From here on, I will speaking of my conclusions – they are not fact, but merely what I believe to be the most likely explanations for the case. Would you care to hear them?”
“Ha! Interesting!” He studies my face as he rests his face on his knuckles. Padre Damaso and this man are still good friends, if San Diego be a miniature of Rome in effect, then theirs was a rule of both earthly and heavenly authorities in perfect accord. This happy balance was cracked by my father’s arrest and death. The plague that is Padre Salvi; it is Ibarra’s fault. “Is this the sort of study you had done in Europe?”
He wonders now if I would become to him another painful annoyance. He does not have the energy anymore to deal with two precocious brats.
“I can say that I acquired these skills sometime before I returned to the Philippines.” Surprisingly, the distillation of all those detective stories and videos you have crammed into my skull has nothing to do with it. All mystery cases are completely arbitrary for the sake of tantalizing the reader. The Guardia Civil is nothing like . “May I sit down?”
“Go on,” he says with another wave of his hand. “Do not be coy about this, Don Crisostomo. With only having seen some blood on the floor, a broken offering box, and an empty church… without having spoken to any of the people involved… tell me, how do you find the culprit?”
I sit on the padded chair set next to the wall, lace my fingers together and lean forward, the cane head of the cane just under my nose. All you might see of my face are my eyes, glowering at you with the Kubrick Stare.
“We have several facts, but some of them can actually be discarded as part of the first event which forced the second to happen. The important thing is that we have completely empty building where a crime has occurred. Theft, murder, it matters not.
Padre Bernardo Salvi would not leave this place unattended.
Therefore someone should have remained behind.”
I raise and slam my cane against the floor. Berto, still standing in attention in front of the Alferez, flinches back in surprise. For this place is not the barracks; of course the chief would not stay with the common soldiers unless he needs to order them about. This is his home and I am attacking his floor.
“Who is that man that is trusted to man the fort in the cura’s absence? The suspect.
Who would break open the offering box? Someone who is left alone. The means.
Why would he do this? Because he is desperate to run and needs to be able to pay for things. The motive.
Why the offering box instead of the gold furnishings or anything else? Because it is easier to carry and spend. The money!
The only person who fulfills all these criteria is – “
The carriage hired from Manila is still by the roadside. The driver gives us a mildly baleful gaze as we approached. A short rest only gives the horses enough time for their muscles to cramp up. He is rubbing at their sides while they drink a soggy mixture of water and oats from buckets. They whinny in complaint as he takes away the buckets and tosses the contents over the bushes. The buckets return to the hooks under the carriage.
Philippine work horses are more exactly work ponies, a relatively small but hardy breed. Do not mock Asian horses too much though; for contrary to what you might expect, the Mongols did not conquer the largest land empire the world had ever seen on fearsome destriers. Mongolian cavalry were a smaller breed made for endurance than carrying a man in full armor.
Gentle, patient, long-suffering horses like these. “Back to town, kapatid na cuchero”, brother driver “then after that you are free to do as you desire. You will have a bonus for waiting, worry not.” I say to him as we enter the carriage.
Old Doroy reaches over to offer him the cigar he’d offered earlier to the gravekeeper. With an obliged nod, he takes it and put it into his pocket.
“Do you think I have been unfair?” I ask Old Doroy once the carriage has started moving. It should not take more than a few minutes to get back to town. Were it not for the conditions of the roads, human-powered pedal bicycles could do it faster. “After all, he was but a poor man that suffered enough for having to deal with my father’s remains.”
The old servant shakes his head. His eyes are unexpectedly clear. “The choice to disrespect such a good man by throwing his corpse into the waters was his alone. As you said, Sir Ibarra, he could have done anything else just as easy that would have allowed us to recover his bones. He lied about having it done anyway to the friar that ordered him to do it. So in the end it did not even matter! Such a shiftless man!”
But even such a man might break through into tomorrow. We shall see. “I regret it now, because that is a very poor order – that the man tried to carry out anyway. An order born of mindless spite. I would hope that, if I were to make such an inconvenient command, you would at least tell me of the difficulty in having it done.”
“It is not my place to ask why, only to do all I can to make it so, Don Ibarra.”
“Well I would still rather have you raise and objection, than to have you make a promise, try, and give up halfway.”
“I would never!”
“You would not, but what about your employees?”
“I will make sure they will fear the punishment for any failure.”
“I would rather not have wasted my time – punishments will not bring it back. Do not bother me with inconsequential problems, Señor Doroy, but soon enough I will ask of you to carry out orders that will seem to make no sense. Orders that require secrecy. Orders that I do not actually care how you carry them out, only that they are done.
The first among this is to build a cadre of intelligent, determined people – people unlike that gravedigger, who works only under threat of pain. As we have seen, if you are already in pain, the power of the command diminishes. You will find for me such men that will work on retainer, who will not make trouble even if they are paid to sit around in for weeks in between moments of high activity, men who will not be missed should they… disappear.”
“Don Crisostomo. It…” he pauses. “No, I cannot say I can do this so easily. I am a merchant. While I do know how employ workers, I do not know how select such people as you want. I am old, forgive me, I am already an old man who cannot learn new things, and such strange work is beyond me. I could however, assign my own children to this task, if you would allow.”
“And then you would be responsible for their results. I see nothing wrong with nepotism when the parent can control the actions of their child, and thus feel secure in their competence for the task. How likely do you think this chance would be used to put up people they know for easy money? There are also consequences for carelessness, are you sure you would have your own blood be subject to them?”
He slumps. “My children are good honest men and I have sent them to study in good schools. They have been great help in the business. But I do not know, Don Ibarra, what punishment would you give? It is… impossible, I think, to succeed in choosing good workers all the time. What kind of work do you mean? Men who would be so happy to face death for money… I do not know if they can be trusted.”
And that is why no one trusts the Guardia Civil.
“Good, good, your continued unwillingness to simply make a promise and trusting it to work out by itself continues to impress me, Señor Doroy.” I lean out the carriage window to see that we have arrived near the town center.
“I will amend my orders, then. First, take this.” I reach behind my back and toss him another pouch of money. “Pay the cuchero double the payment that is expected. Have this carriage bring you to the Ibarra domicile and tell its caretaker of my arrival.
Second, take this,” and I hand over to him a ruby signet ring, showing an emblem (Bя) “This is the new symbol of the Ibarra company. Show this to the caretaker and others as a symbol of my trust. Tell them to break out the wine, and have the cooks butcher a pig for lechon kawali and adobo sa asin. May you be served in that house as if it is your own. Please, be at ease and rest for a while before your trip back to the city.
In Manila, only show this to the desk of Fonda de Lala, and be served with all the comforts as if due to myself. I have with them reserved a room for an entire year, and their parlor will be open at no personal expense to all those who carry this symbol of my trust.
And third,” I say as I place my hand on the side of the carriage, “Consider your salary doubled. We will discuss what you must do to advance my father’s business later.”
“Don Ibarra!” the custodian cries out in alarm.
I speak past him “Right here, driver. This is fine.”
The carriage stops by the doors to the church. Such are towns in the Philippines that the church, plaza, and government hall, often face each other, forming the town center. The market is often a good distance away.
I step off, for this carriage is not an enclosed carriage with doors and walls. We would have been out of luck were it raining and windy. I bid Old Doroy and the coach-driver a good day, and they clatter off further down the road, kicking up dust in their wake. Doggol peers mounfully at me from the back, but little dog your little legs are not meant for these poor dirt roads.
I chuckle. And so you see why everything all but stops when in rains here in the Philippines. Dusty when sunny, muddy when rainy, those who take paved roads for granted do not understand how taxes buy civilization. When it is too damn hot half the year and too damn rainy in the other, why be so surprised when the natives feel unenthused to go out and work?
Horse carriages simply cannot be made to keep going as a car would, when the rains are strong.
Boats… boats can, as long as it is close to shore. Horses can get sick, motor engines cannot. Of this moment, the Philippines is a maritime economy – in that other world, it would take much assistance from the Americans, blasting through mountains and pouring mountain-loads of tar and asphalt to start with a national highway. In this one – even my own miraculous wealth would be a drop in the bucket to the effort required. Thirty pesos, three hundred, three thousand pesos, all insignificant sums! No longer am I allowed to think of mere silver and gold as wealth – to me, the only true wealth is access to strategic resources.
Of this moment, because sea transport is still the most reliable way of moving people and goods from place to place, the Philippines exists as a collection of loosely connected local economies. Each province is known for only a certain type of export good, and must produce most of their own food.
No good roads for it. Ships? Refrigeration? Of this moment, refrigerated ships already allow for massive hauls of beef from South America to the American and European larders. We have none, though there are good pastural highlands in North Luzon. The Philippines now and then gets an ice ship to Manila for luxury dining, nothing in the order of industrial solutions. Provinces do little to feed each other. Provinces ask little from each other. We have more trade with outside nations than each other. The only exception being the flatlands of Luzon, and its tiny little railway with its tiny little steam locomotive.
In this time we are fully a hundred years backwards everyone else.
In this time, each province distrusts each other, each island a fief unto itself. We are not a nation.
Only one thing unites us.
I look up at the stone walls and the bell tower of the church.
The San Diego church is small, but it is not humble. Its high vaulted ceilings are painted white, but pleasingly offset by crossed wooden beams. Bats and swallows nest in its recesses. The floor is made of colored tiles in repeating patten that draws the eye, like an Escher illusion yearning to break free.
Four rows of hard uncomfortable pews sit its nave, while to the left and right await closed-off confessional booths. Closer to the main altar space, the church branches off into a cross as is the norm for churches in this country; here are alcoves for the saints and a wooden body of Christ sealed in a glass coffin. Here too are the more comfortable pews for the town elite, and a padded chair for the alcalde and other dignitaries. Look there, the altar beyond three raised steps, its slab draped over with a red cloth. The cross is silver, the effigy of cunningly carved white wood being even more luminous unpainted. It is ensconced within a cunningly carved reredo, with overlapping archs and pillars in a neo-classical style, a temple within a temple. Above the crucifix, dominating the tabernacle, is a painting of souls being tormented and burning in Hell, with the saints watching with pitiless equanimity from above.
Its high windows are too small for stained glass illumination, here casting thin ribbons of sunlight into a nearly soundless citadel. One could almost believe the outside world has no power over the sanctity of this space. The cares and pains of the outside world stop; here you shall find peace.
It is also peculiarly empty.
There should at least be an altar boy or two around somewhere, cleaning and preparing for All-Saint’s Day. Through the silent church I walk, I do not raise my voice to ask hello. With no one to see, I cross even the normally forbidden sanctuary, the altar area, and past it to the two doors on either side.
These lead to the rectory, where the parish priest should actually live, though in practice he would partake of meals cooked enthusiastically at the nearby convent. In contrast to the church just a few short steps away, it is much humbler, lived-in structure. Its floors sag, its stone walls are rough and cold. Here amidst smaller rooms for the live-in sacristan personnel and visiting lay brothers rule the sacristan mayor as a petty chief, and less it be said that upon his hands the offertory box holds no security.
“Hola!” I now call out, “Is anyone here?”
Such an eerie silence.
Seeing no point to hanging about like a thief, I leave the place.
I squint at the sky past the wooden cross topping the tower.
God, it is hot.
Another thing I regret is wearing a black suit while in the Philippines. No wonder dark clothes are a fashion statement for the wealthy; only an idiot would go out in the day in this outfit. Even Capitan Tiago wears white, and the papers call him the Rothschild of the Philippines.
I sit on a stone bench under the shade of a tree and watch the passers-by. They glance at me, but quickly move past where I rest, as if I am a magical dwarf looking for someone to cast a spell upon. Only a tied-up carabao nearby dares to meet my gaze, it does so with the calm dignity of emperors.
One thing that can be said for the main streets of this time, is that they are wide. On either side of the plaza San Diego, which is little more than an expanse of cobblestones and grass, are townhouses with thick stone walls for the first floor and a second floor made out of wood, with shingled roofs. These homes are quite earthquake-proof, resistant to storms, though to fire they are helpless. They are like small castles, though their fence walls for their gardens are bamboo.
Like most things in the Philippines the development of these architectural styles is born of lessons usually best learned through calamity. Stone houses, as in Europe, became the choice of the resident Spanish because of how Manila in 1583, without houses and churches main primarily of wood, were devoured by fire.
The walled city of Manila then grew to boast hundreds of stone houses, until a series of earthquakes then reduced much of it to rubble. It was thence mandated the buildings be limited to two storeys, with wooden posts that better were better adaptive to shaking ground than stone pillars, and walls always at least one-fifth thick compared to its height. Roofing may be made high, but primarily of light construction.
Thus – and here I spread open my arms as if stretching out and look from side to side – we have this scene, lacking the heights and graces of cities in Europe, nor the slender elegance of other wooden structures in Asia. A brute but practicable style well suited to withstanding calamity.
Some distance away are the tiendas, the shops, owned mainly by the Chinese. Dealers in rice and sugar, retailers in hot bowls of ginger-infused arroz caldo and candies and alcohol, and loudly shouting broken Tagalog when they speak. They have patterned their homes upon the elite of the town, though made of wood and brick rather than ponderous cut stone. The lower floor mainly serve as shopfronts and warehouses, not for servant living quarters and the calesa. San Diego also has a Chinese village, it is closer to the docks, where laborers constantly move bags and parcels onto boats for shipping across Laguna de Bay and up the Pasig River.
The wealthy of this town are landowners, and for them such petty mercantile pursuits below their concern. The Filipino natives prefer the predictable exchange of labor and raw goods for money, not the small bit by bit toil of merchants who have to haul and measure and in their attempts to eke out the best profit appear as cheats and misers.
Those Chinese who have married Filipinos and become mestizo de sangley, and embraced the Catholic faith in its totality live as their half-Spanish neighbors do, and rarely show any sympathy for the people from whom they sprung.
Laguna knows of this tragedy. A visit by Chinese mandarins on May 23, 1603 led the local Spanish authorities to believe that it was an attempt to check their defenses in preparation for an invasion; for at this time the Chinese outnumbered the Spanish ten-to-one. The Archbishop and priests of Manila fanned distrust of the Chinese residents in the parian area of Manila, which later erupted into the Sangley Uprising.
The Governor General of that time, a certain Luis Pérez Dasmariñas, famously stated that the Chinese were cowards, and the twenty-five Spaniards were enough to conquer all of China. He led failed invasions of Cambodia and Mindanao, and during this rebellion his head and the heads of his men were cut off by the rebels and mounted on poles in Manila.
A combined force of Spanish, Filipino and Japanese troops eventually suppressed the rebellion, with about twenty thousand Chinese massacred in the aftermath. The Administrative Commissioner of Fujian, Xu Xue-ju, petitioned the Emperor for a punitive invasion several times. He received only a letter that stated among other reasons of not going to war to such a distant place as Luzon, that merchants were “common folk not worth waging a battle for”, and that “these merchants by going to Luzon had abandoned their families and familial ties”.
A second massacre happened in 1639, as relations with the mainland normalized and soon Chinese workers again flooded the shores to pick up the labor shortage created by the previous massacre. The abuses of the Spanish overlords ignited the workers to rise up, and it is somewhere around here – not in Calamba, which does not exist as much as Rizal does not – that the uprising began and soon grow to consume all of Laguna. The alcalde mayor and several priests were murdered, churches and municipal buildings were burned, and twenty-two towns through Laguna were either raided or set afire by the Chinese rebels. They were harried over the course of a year into the mountains, and over twenty thousand of them were slain.
And so these peaceful roads have been washed by torrents of rain and blood. Yes, two hundred years have passed, but the memory is long. Many intermarried and assimilated, like those of Rizal’s own ancestors, to finally be safe and be mostly free from the extortionate taxation and duties levied upon pure-blooded Chinese.
In this era, everything is decided by blood.
Ah, it is damned hot day.
Across the main street is the town hall, a structure far less cared for by the townsfolk. A long hall roughly fifteen meters long and eight wide, its whitewashed sides scribbed with charcoal graffiti, and inside a pitiful armory of old flintlock guns, narrow bolos and sabers, the weapons of the cuadrecillos. Equivalent to the town police, they go around barefoot. Their function has more or less been replaced by the military Guardia Civil, of which the alferez commands from his barracks closer to the edge of town.
And since we know that Laguna is perpetually distrustful of its Chinese workers and merchants, the garrison here is no surprise.
What strikes me most about this scene is what is missing.
Almost uniformly across the nation in the future that is your Philippines, the multipurpose concrete plaza in front of the town hall which doubles as a basketball court. If lacking anything to do, the youths may at least spend their time in harmless sports instead of gambling and drinking. If not dribbling a ball, then kicking it, or slapping it around, or to wheel about with skateboards.
Since I have not the authority nor public goodwill to have that paved over, I will have to pour concrete for a utility park elsewhere. It is but limestone, gravel, and sand, how difficult could it be?
Basketball has yet to be invented. Mothers will perhaps decry playing on hard concrete, here falling down while playing football will hurt more; leave deeper, bloodier gashes on their skin. Yet this is a time when children are fearless, those puckered scars would be badges of pride.
Perhaps instead of dirt football.. street hockey, with the proper padding?
No, as interesting it would be to have to re-invent rollerskates, I doubt it would be in the common folk’s price range.
Volleyball? Tennis? American Football? Oh. Sepak Takraw. Only replaced with arnis as the national sport in 2009. Woven balls of rattan would be cheap and easy to distribute.
I glance back towards the road leading into the Chinese area. With a paved area over there, it would be much easier to set up bleacher seats and food stalls all around. The cockfighting ring is too narrow for general purpose activities. I could sponsor a martial arts competition, maybe?
After harvest season, people will seek to spread over their rice onto my pavement for drying – for this also, I can charge them some small sum.
Maybe it is not too late to put aside being a media mogul and become the Concrete King? Instead of submarines, let me be obsessed with roads. Roads and dynamite…
No, it is too late. Sad.
Oh, what is this?
Approaching the church are two young men in the blue garb of the Guardia Civil. They are armed. Their skin is dark, and only a little disgruntled at being sent out under this mid-afternoon sun.
“Hello there, you men!” I call out in Tagalog as they approach. “What moves you in such a hurry on this fine day?”
“How is it any business of yours, señor?” one replies.
The other jabs him with an elbow for being so stupid as to disrespect a wealthy-looking fellow. “Before we answer, might I ask – who are you señor, and if you have business here at the church?”
“I am Don Crisostomo Ibarra, freshly returned from Europe. I am here waiting to pay my respects to Padre Salvi. And you-?”
They hesitate. If you were identifiable, you were accountable. Like the Spartans and their face-covering helmets of old, it was this that allowed them to act with impunity among their Helots. After a while, comes the reply “I am Berto, this is Juan.”
Excellent to meet you, gentlemen. Now, if you would indulge my curiousity?”
“A robbery has been reported.”
“Yes, I have heard gossip about that. Two children, two missing doubloons, it hardly sounds worth your time.”
“No, Señor Ibarra,” Berto replies. “A new robbery. Now they say nearly two hundred pesos are missing from the offering box, and the children are none to be found.”
Oh for fuchs’ sake.