It was a balmy day at Paco Cemetery, and the ceremony was a fine one beyond the means of the departed’s family, seen there attending in their ‘finest’ threadbare clothes and wooden sandals.
The casket was made of fine white wood almost glowing in the sun, and more flowers adorned the scene that one might mistake it for an outdoor wedding instead of a burial. Two priests officiated the ceremony, the older one droning the rites in accented Tagalog as he sprinkled holy water about while the other whisked around a perfumed censer.
The people attending the burial looked bored. Even the pallbearers, the other men that Pedro could call friends, had come expecting that someone was getting buried in a wine barrel instead of a regular old casket.
Don Crisostomo was not there, thought it was an open secret that he was paying for the whole thing. Don Anastasio was there instead, and the old man’s presence and how Sisa and her family now lived at his house sent the country wives whispering with salacious natter. He was still an old man, but an unmarried one, and there was already thought of what inheritance he might leave.
In her face the neighbors offered sympathy, but at her back they called her a wanton woman, and then a woman putting up airs, and everything short of being called a whore. It was a good thing Basilio was likewise shut inside Old Tasio’s house when not assisting the teacher Navidad, or he would have found himself having no choice but to get into fights with older children repeating the careless taunts of their own self-righteous parents.
Even in death, Pedro could not help but to make things worse for their family; this was Basilio’s mind. Maybe some people are better off dead, he supposed, even as Narcisa wailed and threw herself upon the coffin as they prepared to lower it into the grave. Even at that final moment Narcisa was apologizing to her abusive husband.
“Brother, you are crying…” said Crispin.
Basilio reached up to touch his own face. Huh. So he was.
The younger boy’s face was twisted up and he kept rubbing at his eyes. “They say I cry too much… but right now, it hurts, but I can’t cry.”
Basilio put his hand over his brother’s head. “It is fine. Now go and embrace mother. She needs you more right now than that coffin.”
Crispin had never known his father as anything but an idle gambler, but Basilio – even as much as he detested his father as a wastrel, some part of him still remembered when Pedro could still be a doting parent. There was a time when as an innocent child, he only had trust and love for his father’s strength. He supposed that was lost the first time he saw his father beat his mother into being quiet.
Narcisa was always quiet at home.
Basilio clenched his young fists. “Some people are better off dead… right?” he insisted again to himself. He felt Don Crisostomo would have agreed.
Don Crisostomo would have been horrified.
Just last week Basilio had thought of a plan. Part of why he refused to admit to the theft and surrender his wages was that shortly enough none of it would matter.
He was going to stop being sacristan and approach Don Crisostomo for work. No matter that working in the Church seemed easier and more respectable, and the pay greater, most of it was often eaten up in fines and beatings anyway. Don Rafael Ibarra had been known to be kind to children, and his arrest for saving a child’s life was what turned the people’s opinions from Padre Damaso.
Crispin could study with Old Tasio. The old man had always been willing to extend a helping hand to those who wanted to learn, and inflict his knowledge to those unwilling. He could gather fruits from the forest and fish in the river to sell in town along with the vegetables from their garden patch. When older, he could hunt; when stronger, he would ask for Don Rafael’s son to grant him a small patch of land on which to plant sugar and corn, so that his mother would no longer go hungry and have to sew until midnight. Old Tasio had said Crispin was very intelligent, so then let him go to Manila to study; Basilio would work his utmost to support him into becoming a doctor. In a single generation the family would gain respectability. No sacrifice would be too great.
But then Don Crisostomo rode into town and upended everything like a typhoon.
Basilio could only watch on in mute wonder as everything in his life fell apart, then back into place, with but the merest gesture from the young man returning from abroad.
The poor family still stayed at Don Anastasio’s house, for Don Crisostomo had spoken with the elder and they both agreed that people would be far too busy in the week, and the old man needed someone afoot to prepare his hot baths and cook for him instead of just someone coming by in the early morning and then in the late afternoon. Although a ‘Don’, he could no longer afford to maintain a live-in servant. The old man usually took lunch in someone else’s house, for it was also the way of Filipinos to always offer a meal to visitors.
Now Juliano Navidad had taken to spending his free time in Old Tasio’s house as well. It was here that they practiced unveiling Don Crisostomo’s plan at the conclusion of the fiesta. Basilio did not like the way new way the teacher was looking at his mother.
“What is this that Don Crisostomo has you doing?” Navidad asked that same day while Don Crisostomo was visiting Maria Clara. Basilio looked at him for a few moments, then judged that he was genuinely interested.
Crispin brought in armfuls of blue and red handkerchiefs, while Doggol scampered happily at his heels. Basilio prepared the wooden frames with a silk mesh, and the bottles of paint.
“We are… screen-printing, as Don Crisostomo showed us yesterday.” It felt strange that for once he would have to explain things to an adult, but slowly he demonstrated the process. The stencil was a taut mesh of silk, through which ink was forced through by scraping motions by a rubber blade called a squeegee.
Basilio’s lips quirked. Squeegee. What a nonsensical-sounding word. Much like Doggol the Dog, or Asosso ang Aso (Dogogo the dog) or Perroro la Perro (Doggity of Dog). Don Crisosomo’s influence was clear in this.
Plain red and blue handkerchiefs were imprinted with a bold white silhouette of church, a decorated boat, in front, lines that suggest waves, and white text below:
FIESTA DE SAN DIEGO 1887
Estamos honrados de tenerte
Crispin would carefully take away and place the handkerchiefs onto a holding frame, while Basilio worked the inks and the squeegee. Each handkerchief took roughly a minute to print.
“Don Crisostomo says we may sell these at the fiesta.”
After the white ink on the handkerchiefs have dried, some of them would get a second layer of black for shading, then the opposite color to the base of the handkerchief for further detailing; white, black, and then blue over red and vice versa.
“It sounds simple enough. This seems a small, hand-carry-able way of printing textiles as they do those large patterned bolts of cloth,” Navidad mused. This was the sort of thing he could really use in making his own teaching materials. Certainly a much more convenient method than having to carve blocks for printing.
Basilio nodded. “Don Crisostomo said the problem is finding ink that will not crack or run when washed.”
Navidad inhaled roughly and massaged the bridge of his nose. “And presumably it does not matter to Don Crisotomo if people copy his process if he means to sell this method and maintain monopoly on the best inks.”
Basilio shrugged. It was a trade. If it was really this easy to be a printer, then he would not mind.
His mother suffered pricks and pains sewing into the dead of night. This repetitive motion – slather, swish, and raise – after a while, he could feel how it might become mindless. Instinct alone would guide him on how much paint to pull and how hard to press. He could do this all day if paid well enough.
But suddenly in mid-press, he paused. Doggol began to howl and run around. The corgi barked in panic, then jumped onto the table. Crispin shrieked and scolded the dog to get off their workplace.
Basilio only sighed and put aside his tools. The feeling of obligation settled upon his heart. Somehow, he had long been expecting this to happen.
“Crispin, let’s go.” Basilio winced as he stood up, for rather than sitting squarely on the bench he had been squatting, for he felt this gave him more sense of balance and strength for his young arms while working. Now his knees tingled with little needles of pain.
“Brother? What? Why?” The child looked uncertain at simply abandoning their job. He had endured being called a thief, but no more! Now he would not suffer being called lazy. He owed Don Crisostomo too much. The boy wanted to learn everything under Don Anastasio’s tutelage, if that was required of him. He wanted to be rich like Don Crisostomo.
Basilio kicked at the air and to get some feeling back in his legs and then beckoned. Doggol obediently leapt off the table to pad at the boy’s side. “We need to hurry. Don Crisostomo is doing something stupid.”
Some time later Crispin returned, shrieking “Teacher, teacher, come help us, please!”
Navidad and Old Tasio looked up from their draft of Crisostomo’s speech and saw the seven-year-old boy almost collapse with exhaustion. His clothes were soaked wet, and not with sweat. “What happened? What’s wrong?” the boy was asked.
“Please… send the carriage to the beach. Don Crisostomo needs help. He cannot return on his own.”
“Has Don Crisostomo been attacked?!” asked Old Tasio.
Crispin bared his teeth in anguish. “Y…. yeeees, something like that. Please, help. Brother said to show you the way.”
After some more time, they returned. Crisostomo Ibarra staggered into Old Tasio’s home, supported by Navidad. His black clothes were rumpled and soaked through, much like the two boys leaving soggy footprints upon the wooden floor. Basilio walked behind the two men, looking completely unconcerned, and wringing water out of the bottom of his shirt. Crispin tailed behind, hiding his face in his hands like the weeping angels of old.
Old Tasio leapt out of his seat. “What happened?”
It was Basilio that answered. “Don Crisostomo tried to throw himself into the lake.” After a pause, he added “It was a pitiful sight. He just would not stop, he kept trying to rush into the waters.”
“M’fine…” Ibarra mumbled. “Meddling kids and their damn dog.”
Without remorse Basilio continued “Even with both of us trying to drag him back he would not stop. So I had Crispin find a stick and hit him on the head until he would listen.”
Crispin wailed. His dream was dead. Admitting to raising hand against his patron was an unforgivable betrayal.
Basilio faced the teacher and the old man with an unnatural sort of calm, which only further disturbed the men. Children often had too much energy, noisy, and innocently self-centered to a fault; but as much as adults praised dutifulness and good sense in a child, a ruthless sort of maturity was almost ghastly.
There was a weak, gurgling sort of laughter. Don Crisostomo laughed and waved their worries aside. “Saved my life. Heh. Didn’t expect Basilio to be this quick on the uptake.” He pointed at the dog. “I blame you for this.”
Doggol panted happily and then hid behind the boy’s shins.
“Basilio. Good work. Crispin?”
“Better work. You are forgiven. I owe you both a big favor for mashing the stupid out of my skull.” The younger boy was crying all the while, but he still did it.
“Don Crisostomo, what were you trying to do? Please, tell us you were not trying to kill yourself!” Navidad asked.
Ibarra chuckled darkly and oozed back on his chair. He opened his fingers out and tapped at his forehead, as if he could just reach in and pull out soft gray handfuls of his own brain. “Sometimes… I get confused. There is so much in here now, I do not even know where I even begin anymore. I am a ship in the night, a storm raging around me, without her to light my way – I am lost.”
“Her? Oh. Of course.” Old Tasio huffed. “I too have forgotten that you are but a young man, Don Crisostomo. Of course even you would become consumed when it comes to your lady love.” The old man shook his head. “No, that tale that can wait, all of you get changed into dry clothes. Or you will catch a chill and die.” He went off to fetch and lend them his old clothes rather than call for a servant.
The boys were not invited to listen to Don Crisotomo’s woeful tale of romantic dumbassery, though they did hear an outburst from the next room going –
“I will punch in the face anyone who implies Maria Clara is too weak or too simple to understand our goals. And not in a ‘Here, I will prove you wrong about the inherent inferiority of women to men’, but ‘I am taking your teeth’ sort of way.”
“You are being needlessly dramatic, Crisostomo. I mean no such thing. You have overwhelmed the poor girl.”
There was a sound similar to someone punching himself in the face or slamming his head despondently on a table.
“Are you still afraid? Don Crisostomo has already said he has forgiven you.”
“How are you not?! Don Crisostomo is still half-Castila, and even when they say they forgive they remember. I cannot ask him to teach me now…”
Basilio shrugged and carefully lifted the frame. “Don’t feel so sad that you make mistakes, now. That’s money you hold in your hands. If you want to be rich, then don’t turn a peso into a cuatro.”
(Sixteen silver reales were equal to one gold escudo. Eight reales were one peso. Coins in copper were 1 octavo for 1/8th of a real, while a cuatro was 1/4th of a real. A cuatro was approximately 3.1 percent of a peso, but could still buy some candy.)
Basilio hummed and nodded again. Just because there was an ‘incident’, that did not mean that daylight would burn any slower! They were guests in someone else’s house, there were still no such thing as child labor laws, and there was so much left to do until the fiesta!
Later that night after Don Crisostomo had gone home, with Don Anastasio feeling more secure that his old friend’s son is not about to do anything unwise, the old man called for the two boys. “Children, we need to talk.”
“I will accept any punishment, sir!” Basilio interjected. “Crispin was only following my command.”
“No, I accept that it is my fault this time! Brother, even if you told to me to do it, it was still my hands that hit Don Crisostomo over the head many times with a stick.”
Old Tasio covered his mouth to cover his grin. “Your loyalty to each other does you credit. It is not my place to punish you when Don Crisostomo himself has seen fit to reward you for it.”
The old man grew serious for a moment. “Don Crisostomo has a strange fondness for your family. Until now I have not asked why. Navidad believes that you are related to him secretly as an indiscretion by his grandfather or great-grandfather.”
Crispin looked up, immediately hopeful. Basilio punctured it just as swiftly with “That’s wrong.” Very plausible, but wrong.
Old Tasio considered each of their expressions. Crispin hung his head, fearful and repentant, Basilio faced him squarely with an utter lack of repentance that bordered on arrogance. It was a familiar one. ‘This boy is going to make so many enemies’, the old man thinks. ‘We are like a basket of crabs, because everyone that tries to rise above gets pulled down by the others for the insult of his existence.’
Of course it was also the expression that Crisostomo Ibarra wears. The unnaturally rich young man dared people to try and pull him down, as if saying ‘try to grab at my pant-legs and I’ll drag you down with me into Hell’.
“It is not important why Don Crisostomo trusts you. Do you trust him in return?”
“Of course!” Crispin replied without hesitation.
“No, not at all.”
“Brother, whyyy?!” Crispin moaned, aghast at his most trusted brother’s continuous lack of polite compromise torpedoing all roads to advancement.
Old Tasio only nodded sagely. “Then explain yourself, Basilio.”
“While Crispin ran to get the carriage, Don Crisostomo and I rested by the lakeshore. He was… half-asleep, but he told me some strange things about his plan. Crispin’s good sense is all-important. Any plan that he objects to must be again inspected, no matter what any more wiser heads say.”
Crispin looked up again. “Truly?”
“This he said to me, brother: you are trusted. Do not doubt what you know is good, for if you do then everything falls.”
Old Tasio let out a noncommittal hum. “And for yourself?”
“It is most important that should Don Crisostomo reach too far over himself, for Maria Clara’s sake, someone must be ready to destroy him. He said something… Caesar and momentum?”
“Memento Caesar; es mortalis,” Old Tasio breathed. It was as he had feared.
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man was king. In the land where all are mad, then perhaps the maddest one is the sanest among them all.