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.”