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.