A fugitive always had to mind the feeling of being watched. Elias had such a preternatural sense of it that he could walk through the middle of town with no one the wiser. He did not rely on any disguises any more complicated than a workman’s salakot on his head.
He had a handsome face, with long hair and a light mustache, but easily it could transform from striking to slovenly. Gone was the arrogant stride of a pampered youth, now he walked with the tread of an old man weighed down by regrets. With a shift of a shoulder he could intimidate brigands into choosing better prey, or become so beaten down like one the peasant masses that might as well have been invisible.
Yet for the past two days he had the lingering feeling of being watched. From the moment of waking, to deciding to sleep; be it in town or sneaking through the jungle; his uneasiness inflamed itself. In the end he felt it was best to leave San Diego for some time.
However, a gentleman does not leave a lady to worry. A young lass waited for him every day in her little home by the lake. If he left without saying farewell to Salome. it would pain her with the fear if he has died, or worse, simply grown bored with her. It was well she was being called to live with her relatives in Mindoro, for being associated with him put her in danger.
He was known to the people of San Diego as ‘the pilot’, a quiet but skilled navigator driving a boat through the not-so-calm waters of Laguna de Bay and the twisty bends of the Pasig River with but a single oar. Laguna de Bay was not a very big lake, yet it was large enough that pirates would attack steamboats. Small boats transporting goods were rarely attacked, for lake bandits preferred coin and jewels to having to sell vegetables.
At the moment he beached his boat into a secluded cove in order to proceed to Salome’s house, a young boy with a strange stunted-looking dog crossed his path, stepping silently out of the tall grass. There was something eerie in that child’s little smile.
“Señor Elias, you are the chosen one!” said the child. “Come with me. There things you must know.”
Elias could have ignored the child as typical of their overdramatic antics, were it not for his next words. Words that now brought him into this fetid lonely little nook in the woods. Now Ibarra bid the boy to leave, but Elias had no confidence that the boy would not be a witness to anything that may transpire. However, that would not prevent him from doing what must be done.
“Interesting. So you are the man they call Elias.” Ibarra stood up and raised his lantern high. It exposed his broad face and narrow nose, features handsome yet average, were it not for the eerie intensity of his gaze glinting under the dark hollow of raised brows. With his black suit it was difficult to pick him out from the gloom, leaving him akin to a macabre floating head.
He said: “All this time I had assumed that the man Elias would be older and more capable than myself, but it seems you are actually a bit younger. This certainly makes your… relationship… with that lass Salome, who is sixteen years of age, fair less disquieting.”
Elias, by contrast, had powerful physique and handsome features scarcely hidden by his old worn camisa de chino. “One more threat, Señor Ibarra, just one more in her direction, and only one of us shall be leaving this forest alive!” Elias retorted.
Ibarra recoiled. “Peace, my good man, peace! I certainly did not mean it as a threat, I apologize.”
“Is it not, señor? When your messenger said that not even Mindoro would be beyond your reach, you must have known I had no choice but to come here. He said I must follow in order to save a life, how could I run from such coercion? I fear nothing from men, but to stoop this low is vile, and I will not forgive it.”
Elias grit his teeth. Ibarra certainly was cunning, to use this information against him. As a fugitive he was well used to being chased, and moving from place to place. He had no home, but his attachment Salome was as much a danger to her as it was a weakness. He was no man to run while someone who cares for him so much is left in danger by mere association. There were so many terrible things that could be done to a young unmarried girl caught alone.
His own twin sister’s fate was proof enough of that. He had come to San Diego in the first place of the news that she had been found, now but a lovely corpse with a dagger stuck in her breast, after a flood in the rice fields bordering the shore.
“Aaah. That.” Ibarra shook his head and sighed. He put down his lantern after moving closer and sitting upon the stone fence. “Basilio has much less sensibility compared to his brother, or perhaps just some naughtiness in him, to parrot my words so literally. No, it is not a threat, but a truth. That boy – you might not yet believe it, but you will come to appreciate what it means. He has a unique power to find anyone, anywhere, at any time. Run from him no matter how far in the world, with that dog by his side no one can hide.”
Ibarra then shrugged. “It has its limitations, of course, he has to know either the full name or the face of the person, but this is no fantasy. After we talk things over, I invite you to test his ability.”
Elias scowled. “And so this is a power that works for you? I am not sure if I believe it, but let that be as it may. What do you want, Señor Ibarra?” Tell me your demands, that Salome may be safe from you. Tell me your demands, that I may know if it is best for all to simply slay you right here, as we stand as equals.
“Why, the same as what you have been told. I begged you to come and meet me here in secret, in order that you might save a life. My life, of course.”
Naturally, he responded, “I make no such promises.”
Ibarra opened his arms and bowed. “You are too suspicious of me, and that is my fault. I apologize. Please, only hear me out.”
Elias, still scowling and ready to draw his bolo, approached and lightly leaned against a standing boulder. Between the two men stood, in silent vigil, a stone angel above a closed and vine-encrusted mausoleum.
“Before we begin, I must tell you a little about my family. Were you aware that my father had been arrested for slaying a Spanish official, then held for false charges of heresy and sedition? He was well loved in town, and his arrest and death led to the removal of the town’s previous parish priest. Padre Damaso, whom people claim you have manhandled along the road.”
Elias said nothing, for if it was Ibarra’s intent to force a confession it would take more than that. The young man continued “Do you believe in justice? Is it even possible for justice to be granted, if not perfectly, then at least evenly? How can there be justice for both the poor and the powerless?
I ask you this, because what happened to my father is not justice – he died alone in his cell, and yet also not justice in the sense that he committed murder and would have not have been prosecuted at all for his role in the death of a man in saving a child (though if it had been just that, in a court of Britain or America perhaps he would have been acquitted or given a light sentence since it was accidental) but not so as long has he drawn the ire of the powerful and the greedy, ready to lay false charges. The charge of heresy alone dooms a man who fails to attend church, or the inability to produce a cedula for one who must still work. An arrest can always be made for anyone who draws the ire of the powerful.”
Ibarra clacked his tongue. “No, I ask you this, because our justice system in this land simply does not function. The rot is deep. The pus cannot be drained, the limb cannot be amputated, we must rewrite the laws and the culture of laws entirely.”
“Unlike your father, you do speak of sedition,” Elias replied carefully. For Ibarra was one of the powerful, and thus his words cannot be trusted as the truth. Honor was a thing many claimed, but little possessed by those who most professed it. “But in answer to your question, no, I do not believe that there can be man’s justice. I believe in only God’s justice.”
Ibarra raised both hands. “But then how do you get God’s justice? Is it enough to wait and hope that in time God will account for all in all balance? In olden times they had trial of ordeals, in which a defendant is subject to an unpleasant or dangerous experience. Trial by combat, trial by fire, trial by water, by cross, by poison, by boiling oil!
If they survived, or if their injuries healed, it was considered a sign of innocence. But is this reliance on miracles truly a way to find justice? Or will it not advantage the fit, the healthy, the swift, the lucky? Is the hand of god to be seen the same in the gambler’s dice as it is on the court of fire? Must we therefore believe in accidents?”
“Believing in accidents is like believing in miracles; both presuppose that that God does not know the future. What is an accident? An event that no one has at all foreseen. What is a miracle? A contradiction, an overturning of natural laws. Lack of foresight and contradiction in the Intelligence that rules the machinery of the world indicate two great defects.
But you misunderstand what I mean, for I too know what is written, that Jesus said ‘Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God’’!”
“There is a place in the desert called Massah and Meribah because of the quarrel of the sons of Israel, because they tested the LORD, saying, ‘Is the LORD among us, or not?’” Ibarra added.
“You also know your scripture well, sir. The scripture is not a shield to hide behind nor a sword to use against your enemies. When a priest condemns a man to death, he is no better. I say only this: when a man condemns others to death or destroys their future forever he does it with impunity and uses the strength of others to execute his judgments, which after all may be mistaken or erroneous.
I say to you: let God be the sole judge among men, let Him be the only one to have the right over life, let no man ever think to take His place!”
Ibarra stood up and opened his palm towards Elias. He moved it in a circle as if wiping a window. “If this is about the death penalty, then we both agree. Let me ask you something then, in theory.
Let us say that a man encounters a priest on the road. Why would such a man choose to strike down a priest, and yet in his anger choose not to kill said priest? If such a man of God is a hypocrite and liar, then why not just kill him and prevent him from causing more harm to others? Is it because such a man has decided that to kill with his hands, in a situation of unequal power, is to exert his own judgement above God?”
Elias raised his left hand to his face and clenched his fist. “A man might strike down a priest to see if one who speaks for God has truly the right to claim the life of another, may God strike down such a man for his impunity! Let even a priest be exposed to the same peril he prepares for others, may God smite them both down!”
“… and nothing happened.”
“A man like that regrets having done such a thing. It proved nothing but his the strength of his own fists, there was no justice there.”
“Considering how many priests and missionaries are killed and perhaps eaten by savages, and many saints die of painful martyrdom, it should be clear enough that God exerts no special protection for his clergy. The ones who display the least virtue are the ones that are the safest, one might even say. ”
“Humiliation may strike deeper than physical injury, for it cannot be spun as a sacrifice. It is the only thing that can touch him now.” Elias retorted, though it was clear in his tone he recognized he was searching for anything positive from the pitiful ordeal. Perhaps he grated against his principles in the end. The worst that could ever happen to a priest for his misdeeds is to be transferred to another parish, where no one might know he was a rapist. “I have to believe greatly in God, because I have lost faith in men. Many times have I felt his touch upon me, many times that I have found myself living where I should have died.”
Ibarra could see that this was a man whose experiences led him to refuse to recognize the right of man to judge his fellows, protested the use of force, and the superiority of some classes over the others.
“Elias, I know I have given you little cause to trust me, and we are hardly so close as to be friends, but would you be willing to tell me your story? What shaped you to be like this, and what can I do to prevent my boys from becoming bitter as you? I do not mean any insult by this-“
“And I take none from it, let the innocence of children be preserved for as long as possible.”
“I will tell you this, then – I have some knowledge of you, but that is not to know you. You are chosen, Elias, there is more to you than to be fugitive leading a band of tulisan-rebels. We must work together for the good of our nation, I shall lend my power to yours if you will yours to mine.
But first we must be able to trust. So let us talk.”
“I have not forgotten your implied threat against an innocent to draw me out, Señor Ibarra. Why should I trust you other than because you ask it? You have been in collusion with the creators of injustice in town.”
“Then allow me to rephrase that: if Mindoro is not too far from my reach, then even in Mindoro you and I will be able to protect her. Do not feel that to feel attachments is a liability, for it is that which makes life worth living! As for why I court the favor of the powerful – why not? If they are willing to allow the fox to guard the henhouse, then so much the better.”
“Where even do you find this confidence, Señor Ibarra? You speak grandly, and yet all I can see is that you will be crushed. Might you simply be naïve, and full of delusion in your own potency, as I was?”
“Perhaps. Tell me then, what makes you think that?”
Elias sighed. “If it will make you less bothersome, then I shall speak of some of it –“
Once upon a time in Manila, there lived a young man with a good life. He had a beautiful pregnant wife and a very young son and was employed as a bookkeeper for a Spanish commercial firm. One night for some reason the warehouse burned down, and the fire spread to the home of his employer and them to many other buildings. With such great loss, a scapegoat was sought, and the merchant accused him of being an arsonist.
Though he protested his innocence, he did not have the money to pay the great lawyers and was swiftly deemed guilty. In those times, not more than sixty years ago, they still used the punished called ‘caballo y vaca’ – horse and cow – in which the condemned is tied to a horse, followed by an unfeeling crowed, to be flogged publicly on every street corner under sight of men, his brothers, and the temples of god. Thus forever disgraced, and the vengeance of man sated by his blood, he must be taken off the horse limp as if dead, his soul exhausted by his cries.
How much better if he had died, and gone to God’s grace! But it is the refinements of cruelty that he was given his liberty. His wife begged from door to door for work, for alms, or aid for her sick husband and her poor son, but who would trust the wife of a criminal? All good people drove her from her sight. The wife, then, had no other resort but to become a prostitute!
“No, Señor, do not feel outraged for her sake; for them the disgraced and long head honor and shame no longer existed!” Elias exclaimed at the dark look of rage on Ibarra’s face. “Can you say things now are any better, now that such punishments are outlawed for the more civilized slavery of prisoners? Who truly suffers?”
“I fear to say that had your grandfather been a man of less honor, it would have affected him less. A habitual criminal would rejoice the pain of an afternoon rather than years taken from his life, to the better profit of his taskmasters.” Ibarra shook his head sadly. “It is not justice, and the object of criminal justice should be reform rather than revenge. But where public shaming and torture is the rule of the land, in deterrence, this also drives the townsfolk towards cruelty and treatment of the criminal as less than human. Which is better – out of sight, out of mind, cruelty applied by the government; or in-their-face, in shorter duration, to teach the young that violence is a fine measure? I would have to say, the former – for that we may yet reform.”
“Your words may be more exact than you know. I shall continue-“
In time the husband recovered from his wounds, and with his wife and child fled to hide in the mountains of this province. Here they lived several miserable months, hated and shunned by all. The woman gave birth to a sickly child, who fortunately died.
In time again she was pregnant, and fell ill in the advanced stages of her pregnancy. Unable to bear that misery, and less courageous than his wife, my grandfather hung himself. His corpse rotted in the sight of his young son, who was scarcely able to care for his mother. The stench drew the attention of the neighbors, and they accused the prostitute of being the cause of his death. Her swears of innocence could only be seen as perjury, her please to God a blasphemy, for a prostitute was capable of anything.
Yet in those times they had cruel pity of a sort. They waited for the birth of another child before they flogged her. Thus condemned, she could only curse the day of her child’s birth, which unfortunately was a healthy young boy. Two months later the sentence was executed much to the pleasure of the authorities and guardians of morality. Afterwards she then fled into the next province with her two sons, and there they lived, hating and being hated.
The elder of the two boys, remembering the misery of his childhood and yet the happiness of his infancy, became a tulisan as soon as he had strength enough in his arms. He took from the world with blood and fire the fitting revenge for how much they had taken from him. This bloody name of Balat spread from province to province, inspiring terror in the people.
“I know this name,” said Ibarra “for he had sacked the town of San Diego also in my grandfather’s time.”
“Do you care to guess from whom of the two brothers I spring?”
“I do not believe that sin is carried through the line by blood, so if you are the son of Balat it will not change my opinion. Indeed, it is the most Christian of notions to seek redemption. But in honesty, given your age, I think that it is the younger who is your sire, and that this story does not end in anything but violence.”
“Indeed, for in time Balat fell into clutches of the authorities, and they exacted from him a most agonizing sentence for all that he had wrought. More than that however, they laid further torments on the woman for having done nothing to raise him properly, perhaps in mind to terrify other mothers to mind their responsibility.”
One morning the youngest brother returned to find his mother stretched out on the ground, her hands digging into the earth, her eyes fixed and staring. He looked up to see hanging from a branch a basket, and in it the gory head of his brother.
Balat, they had torn apart, and his limbs hung in different towns. But the head, the best and most recognizable part of the person, they hung up in front of his mother’s hut!
The boy, finding nothing but death wherever he looked, fled as if accused and accursed.
From town to town and mountain and valley, he ran until he reached a place where he felt he was not known. There, in the province of Tayabas he hired himself out as a laborer in the house of a rich man. With thrift and labor and the gentleness of his spirit he acquired for himself the goodwill of those who knew naught of his past and some small capital besides.
In that town he also found the love of a young woman, but he dared not ask for her hand in marriage lest his past become known. But their love was stronger than their sense. To save her honor, he had to ask, but as he had feared his records were sought and his past came to light. The girl’s father was rich and had him imprisoned.
The woman gave birth to twins, but died soon after. They were raised in loving ignorance of their genealogy. They were sent to study in good schools – the boy in the Jesuit College, and the girl at Concordia. After their grandfather died, they inherited all his lands and servants, and their fields produced abundant harvests, and fortune smiled upon them. The girl was engaged to be married to a young man whose adoration she returned.
But the boy… ah, the boy was haughty in disposition, and in a dispute over money had incurred the enmity of a distant relative. One day said relative cast in his face doubt over his birth and the rotten nature of his descent. He…
“No, let me be plain from here on. I thought it was a slander, and demanded satisfaction. I challenged the relative to a duel, but being mocked further for my pretensions I brought the issue to court. And there, that putrid tomb of secrets and misery was opened once again, much to my dismay.
Furthermore, in our household was an old servant whom I had much abused, who always endured our whims and the jeers of the other servants – how that relative had known about it, but he had that old man summoned to court, and there he confessed, that he was but a man clinging in silence to his beloved children – our long-suffering father!”
Elias looked up at the night sky, brilliant and crystal-clear with the moon hanging low, and the constellation of Orion the Hunter suspended directly above them. He sighed.
“And so, out of my hubris, out of my youthful arrogance, our happiness faded away. We gave up our fortunes, my sister lost her betrothed, and with our father we had to flee and find refuge elsewhere. That he had contributed to our misfortunes weighed heavily on the old man’s days, but not before hearing from his lips the full sorrowful truth of our past.”
Elias slumped, but kept his hand on the hilt of his bolo. He spoke some more of the circumstances why he had first come to San Diego. Her despondency for her love abandoning her to marry another, her disappearance and her death, for which he could also do nothing.
The truth was out, he acted as he did now out of remose and bitterness. He was a man of both the principalia and the people, and he had taken for granted the graces and supposed moral superiority afforded by the wealthy. He was now utterly alone, with nothing to lose. His friends were bandits, who took to the hills to revenge themselves against those who used the law to punish the innocent in order to hide their own misdeeds.
“Since then I have wandered from province to province, and my reputation and history in the mouths of many. They attribute to my name many deeds, some to excuse their own.
Some… some deeds, I do not regret them, because I have seen that there is so much more misery, and that it cannot stand. There are more like me, awakened to the falsehood of what we call our social order. The sleep has lasted for hundred years, but now the passions of the people are stirring. What has begun in the sphere of ideas shall descend into the area, where they shall be dyed red and made true by blood.”
“We agree on this much. But violence alone is no solution; for if you had read of the terror of the French Revolution, and the rise of Napoleon; and the revolt in Mexico, and its own self-proclaimed Emperor, and the subsequent disastrous rule of the military, and even Spain’s own pains with their Liberals and their Glorious Republic – those who seek vengeance must dig graves for themselves. The revolution has a tendency to devour itself.
It is not enough to tear down the old order, but it is an even greater struggle to build a new one with justice and mercy for all.”
“Then allow the people to try. I have spoken to you of my past. Now speak to me plainly, sir, what is your intent?”
“Before you can judge what I wish for you to accomplish with me, I beg you to listen, as I tell you of my own family’s terrible secret.”
Elias grudgingly nodded.
And so Ibarra told him of his own great-grandfather, of Don Pedro Ebarramendia’s dark arrival and mysterious death, and pointed out the swinging rope where he had hung himself. He did not know for what reason the old man would choose the way of suicide, but what sins he bore must have weighed upon him at last. He was the one that had accused Elias’ grandfather of being an arsonist, the one to start this whole tragic tale; and yet, it was something that happened too often in these isles that it was difficult to believe it was regret for his false accusation that drove him to his doom.
Elias’ grandfather and Don Saturnino Ibarra must have been roughly the same age, but likely never to have met each other.
Crisostomo Ibarra put down the lantern and opened his arms. “And so my own grandather came to this town in search of his father, and buried him over there, and as he chose to settle here the name Ebarramendia became Ibarra. In this little copse it must still feel such paltry recompense for what your family has suffered.”
Elias gasped. “You… you dare? Do you make light of my family’s woes, señor?! Choose your words carefully if you want to live!”
“My own sources have been so far trustworthy in such matters, so I can say this – your family’s fall was started by one of our own. For this I can only beg for forgiveness. Though I believe each man must be responsible for his own choices – that like your own father there was a choice to do good or to become evil – we cannot move on unless we settle this debt of blood.”
He laughed! “Rejoice! In this little corner of the woods your journey for answers has ended. A new one awaits! Listen to the call of the blood in your veins, Elias! If it calls for vengeance, I will not stop you.” Ibarra stepped forward. “Do with me as you will.”
Elias raised his hand –
And punched Ibarra in the face.
“Oww raght inda schnoz!” he gurgled out. Crisostomo Ibarra bent over clutching his face.
The young man staggered back, for where he had spent most of his time studying and moving around Europe, Elias honed his body and spirit with honest labor and purposeful violence. The blow nearly blinded him.
“No. Whatever folly you have in mind, Señor Ibarra, I will have nothing of it. I am done with you. You have asked me to save your life, and so I have done so.” Elias grit his teeth and restrained the urge to lunge forward, and to throw the other man into the ground and grind his arrogant little face into the dirt. “Stay away from Salome, and do not seek to find me. For if ever we meet again, you shall surely regret it.
This is the one mercy I can give you. I was mistaken to hope one such as you, having seen the world, might feel sympathy about our plight and our people ready to change! What self-serving plans you have, I shall have no part in furthering your amusements!”
Elias turned around to leave the clearing.
Hollow laughter followed after him. “Ah, Elias. Good man, Elias. If this is what you have chosen, then I respect it. I respect your strength of will, and your sense of justice.
But the hand of the Lord is upon you. One more time, you are chosen. All your life you have run from the pain of your past, but now it is the future that will not allow you to escape!”
With unparalleled dignity and self-control, Elias strode away deep into the woods. He gave no more mind to Ibarra’s insane blathering. Carefully he trod through the undergrowth, alert to the sounds if he was being followed. He doused the light of his lantern, trusting in his practiced memory of jungle navigation to lead him past whatever trap Ibarra had prepared.
And he walked back out into the clearing.
Elias looked around bewildered and now drew his bolo. He was certain he had walked in a straight line. Yet there, directly in front of him, never having moved from his comfortable perch under that benighted balete tree, was Juan Crisostomo Ibarra!
Elias shouted, “What deviltry is this?!”
“No devils, sirrah. Angels!” replied Ibarra. In the dark only the white of his eyes and the blood-speckled red of his teeth showed in a Cheshire grin. “I told you, you are the chosen one. Fate is what we make of it, but this is one you will not escape. Angels shall follow your tread no matter how far you might run, and again and again they shall offer you their sword!
The nation needs you, Elias! Eliazar Domingo Morales y Baga! Your name means ‘God Has Helped!’”
And Crisostomo meant ‘Mouth of Gold’, but this Ibarra did not care to mention.
“Help me, Elias,” said Ibarra. “For indeed, you are this nation’s only hope. The Revolution cannot succeed without you.”
Elias’ blade flashed in the moonlight.
That shadowy glade was filled with nothing but deranged laughter.
by P. EHRLICH AND A. LAZARUS