HORSES galloping across the screen; the violins swelling to a melodramatic coda; a man wielding a bolo shouting at the top of his lungs; a crazy woman with a full head of thick, unkempt hair staring operatically at the camera; three black-frocked priests being garroted; a man, in slow-mo, arching his back while behind him a cloud of smoke spreads from the muskets of a firing squad; and then a black round hat lying on the ground. The music slurred to a metallic squeak as the reel bumped to its end and scratches marred the white cloth on which the film had been projected.
Captain Raul Daza continued to sit there as if expecting some epiphany from the centuries-old movie while the curator coughed and tinkered with his antique contraption. The omnilights came on and Capt. Daza blinked in the stark whiteness of the small screening room; a defective switch seemed to be clogging up his brain.
“What do you think, Captain?” The curator smiled sheepishly, as if he wanted no less than five stars for a review. He had such thick bifocals.
“Is that all?”
The man chuckled. “Yes, Captain. The movie’s over. Funny, but they used to pay money just to watch this.” He returned the film to its rusty canister and closed it with a loud thunk.
“Is it authentic?” The question came from the young officer sitting in the corner of the room. Capt. Daza had almost forgotten his presence. Lt. Alan Salazar, rookie of the year: a perfect unobtrusive spy.
“Yes. Certified pre-Gaia, digitally restored. At least two hundred years old.”
The two peacekeepers, Capt. Daza and Lt. Salazar, weighed their thoughts in silence. The revelation seemed to make their brains tick like Geiger counters, trying to find the right number for the right frame. Meanwhile the curator merely yawned and asked if he could be excused. Capt. Daza thanked him for coming at so late an hour, and the curator went out of the room in a hurry.
Capt. Daza blearily gazed at the video-lined walls of the screening room. The Bureau of Forbidden Archives smelled of oxidation; he could almost taste the metallic decay in the air. His mind was too tired to take in the obscure titles of the banned films from the past (Vile Show, Piano List, Scorpion Days); he was too sleepy to think of old myths when he was still reeling from the discovery of the day. Why, Daisy, why? The room suddenly felt like a tomb.
“What do we do with it, sir?”
Capt. Daza swiveled around to face the young officer. He was at a loss; the young man’s blue helmet was the only thing on the table between them. Stiff, confident, and square-jawed, Lt. Salazar seemed to be in a hurry to get his orders. “You found this?”
“Sir, yes, sir. My team found the relic at the salt warehouse where the cultists were holding a meeting.”
Capt. Daza stretched out his legs as, still dazed, he took in the information. The cultists again? For this they had to wake me up in the middle of the night—the few steps to the window made him feel light-headed—to watch an ancient movie that is as incoherent as my own dreams. He stared at the night scene outside the glass window and suppressed a yawn. He had to stay awake, break the lethargy that had drugged him for the past two days. He rested his forehead on the glass and tried to make sense of the superimposed images on it: inside, outside, the world was a matter of reflections. A tenuous membrane between sleep and waking. He had been dreaming of the turtles for the past few nights, the creatures crawling in from the sea, their carapaces gleaming in the moonlight.
“How many of them this time?”
“Thirteen, sir. Two rebels got away through a tunnel under the warehouse. But we captured thirteen.” The lieutenant, fresh from the officers’ academy, was still excited over his catch of social deviants. Peacekeeping, Capt. Daza had to remind himself, was a science. But somehow he also found the young officer’s earnestness irritating. The young man had a way of reserving important information for clinchers: “One was a woman, sir. A university student.”
“Is that so?” Capt. Daza felt the young man could use some shock treatment. He was a young idealist blinded by his own moralism. “Is she pretty enough to be raped?”
Capt. Daza had his back turned on the young man; nevertheless, after uttering it, he felt the hesitation in the air. So this one belongs to the old school of political correctness, Capt. Daza smirked at his own reflection on the glass. The pathetic young man had tried to impress him and was now groping for the remnants of his deflated military ego: service, selflessness, sacrifice. Do you atone for everything by doing eternal push-ups? Daisy used to ask him that. Capt. Daza did not know why he was giving the young man a hard time; his migraine was acting up again.
“Are you sure this came from the cultists?”
“Sir, yes, sir.” The young man seemed to be holding his breath, but Capt. Daza held on to his silence. “This is the first time we found one of their holy relics, sir. The whole film is intact.”
“What do they call it?”
“Hosea Rysal. A banned film from the 20th century, sir.”
Capt. Daza continued staring out the window. He watched the distant shadows of houses lining the shoreline; the moon, at midnight, was a wafer hovering over the roofs. Under a lamppost across the street, his car looked like a glistening insect. He wanted to be home, in bed, away from the cocksure pronouncements of a young man who reminded him of his own youthful certainties when he arrived on the remote island twelve years ago. Capt. Daza caught his own peppery white head reflected in the window glass and he stared at himself brooding over the superimposed world of the night outside the window. The moon was glowing on his forehead.
“What do we do with it, sir? Archive it or burn it?”
Capt. Daza continued to stare at the moon plastered on his forehead. He let his silence grate on the nerves of the young man. The moon was a golden ball of pain throbbing in his head. Why, Daisy, why?
“Sir? What do we do with the relic, sir? The Code of Censorship?”
An entanglement of limbs flashed in his brain: the long flowing hair of his wife cascading over the phallus of a stranger. Daisy, smiling, the vestal virgin of his youth, straddling the rigid cock of a faceless stranger.
“Shall we burn—?”
“Put it in my drawer,” he said, feeling dizzy. “I’ll decide what to do with it tomorrow.”
The young man, as if waiting for him to change his mind, refused to leave the room.
Against his better judgment, Capt. Daza found himself taking out a cigarette from his pocket. “What’s the matter, lieutenant? Never seen a cigarette before?”
“Sir, it’s not that?”
The young soldier stared at him and Capt. Daza had to outglare him. He knew he was violating protocol and the young man could spread rumors?
“I want to talk to the rebels first before deciding what to do with that film.”
A puff from the cigarette was helping him calm down; his headache was going away. With finality, he turned his back on the young man and listened to the clicking of the young man’s heels as he walked away. Why am I doing this? He asked himself as he listened to the footsteps getting fainter and fainter down the hallway outside. He stood there deep in thought, smoking self-consciously. He waited until the young man emerged from the building, the blue United Nations peacekeeper’s helmet turning orange under the lamppost. Capt. Daza took a drag to assure himself what he was doing was not a dream. Service, selflessness, sacrifice: he used to hiss those words to himself when he was training at the peacekeeping academy. He could vividly picture out the face of the training commander repeating those words as if they were pre-adolescent children mumbling the motto “History is a nightmare I am trying to wake from.” Such a quotable quote, almost poetry. Such sweet, harmless propaganda: he could almost hear the innocent children mumbling that motto in values education. When Lt. Salazar disappeared at the bend of the road going to the officers quarters, Capt. Daza took the rusty film canister from the table and clipped it under his armpit.
Emerging from the screening room, Capt. Daza felt a sentient quality in the night. The big clock at the end of the hallway suddenly looked like a portal to another world. He walked down the corridor and turned to the left wing of the quarters. He swiped his ID on the door marked Restricted and it opened with a hiss. The Intelligence Network of the Gaia Peacekeepers confronted him: a mainframe computer linked to the mainland. He had to go through another round of ID confirmation before the computer asked for the network access code. Please log in subject of enquiry and reason for information access. Capt. Daza typed: Criminal investigation. He felt as honest as a pre-brainwashed schoolboy.
After a couple of minutes, Central Data flashed the info he wanted: Hosea Rysal/Jose Rizal (?)—the computer monitor flashed a Malayan face with a thin mustache—19th Century, Age of Political Superstition. National Hero of Archipelago III. Died a martyr for nationalism. Writer, ophthalmologist, amateur scientist. History of deletion: During Islam-Christian religious wars before the Great Upheaval, Gaia Peacekeepers occupied Archipelago III. Secretary-General of the United Nations ordered erasure of all traces of religious and political idolatry which had caused internecine wars. Pax Gaia forbids access to banned historical files without Level III permission.
Level III permission! Capt. Daza took in the information with a growing sense of helplessness. His headache was suddenly back, throbbing like another heartbeat. He wanted to shout, “Fuck the bastards!” although part of him didn’t care anymore. The rebels would fry in their own lard. That his wife was having an affair was banal compared to this state of general censorship. Sex bored him, his work bored him: he was a perfect citizen of the age. And yet, as he closed the intelligence file and turned off the computer, a rankling doubt lingered at the back of his brain; he watched the light on the monitor getting smaller and smaller until it blinked out to a pin’s head. For a while, he stayed there staring at a blank computer screen.
“IT’S turtle season, sir.”
“The turtles will soon be invading our beaches. Egg-laying time.”
“Yeah, they should market that as a tourist attraction.” Capt. Daza tipped Martin, his favorite club waiter, and, not minding the cold seeping up his sinuses, sipped the iced tea while watching his wife sauntering down the shoreline. Not bad, he said to himself as he continued to follow the contours of Daisy’s body. The warm brown hues of her skin melded well with her red bikini. Through the coruscating heat of summer, she was walking down to the waterline, a goddess claiming the world with her beauty. I have been inside that body so many times, he mused, but I cannot really claim her as mine. The body was a tough place to colonize: the mind remained free. He now preferred to look at her from an aesthetic distance, a body whole—such vision was the closest he felt to loving her. Island-wife, fringe benefit for the assignment in the island of Mundano. He remembered the past ten years with her as a blur of nipples, of the salty taste of her neck, of her lips around his penis. Pornographic fragments of anatomical parts. Not bad, he told himself. Not bad for a fifty-year old frontier commander who outlasted three Secretary Generals.
“Anything else, sir?” The obsequious waiter was still standing beside him.
“Would you like to make a reservation for turtle soup?”
Capt. Daza chuckled. “Do you think I need an aphrodisiac?” Macho bravado: he had a good laugh with the waiter.
“They are late this year, sir. We have been waiting since last week for the sea turtles to come.”
“Don’t worry, Martin. They’ll come. The turtles always come this time of the year.” As he spoke, Capt. Daza lifted his glass of iced tea to his face and watched the scene on the beach from the distorted bubble of his drink. He imagined the bodies strewn on the beach as replicas of the sea turtles of his dreams. The creatures, dark blobs from the water, were creeping on the sand to lay their eggs. And when he shifted the glass to take another sip, the dark carapaces transmogrified into flabby torsos of sunbathers baking themselves in the lurid summer sun. Reverse Darwinian evolution: from water you came and to water thou shalt return. Capt. Daza was becoming philosophical. The sound of the surf was a persistent background to the shouts of children playing in the distance. The sound of the sea is the hum of the universe: he tried to remember where he read that mystical bullshit. He had read so many books since he was assigned to this godforsaken place.
“So, Raul, have you caught any pirate in Zulu Zee lately?” Dripping wet from a swim, Prof. Hernandez whispered like a conspirator, bending over Capt. Daza on his reclining beach chair. “Interesting life, huh? Spend your days in a beach club while pursuing adventures of pirates and swashbucklers.”
“Edwin, has it been a year since we last got drunk together?” Capt. Daza was happy to see an old friend again.
“Time flies. R and R season again in your paradise island.”
“Don’t envy me, my friend. I’m just a small-time peacekeeper of a fringe station. I protect tourists from the encroachment of terrorists and cultists. Tell me about the latest news from the mainland.”
“Nothing is happening there, my friend.” Prof. Hernandez vigorously rubbed the towel on his hair. “Just your usual suicides.” He plopped down on the adjacent beach chair and scanned the shoreline strewn with bathers. “And adultery. And divorce. And petty conflicts blown out of proportion by the starved imagination. You are actually leading a more interesting life here on Kalayasan island. That’s the problem with peace. It keeps psychiatric health workers like me busy. We are the lifeguards of a picnic society.”
“You want to bring back the war?”
“Who’s talking about war? Nobody has heard of that word since the era of genetic decoding. Is that Daisy?”
Capt. Daza did not need to reply. Silence was the only answer fit for the vision of Venus rising from the sea. It took Prof. Hernandez a minute to disengage from the sigh-inducing sight of Daisy. Capt. Daza allowed his friend his freedom to fantasize while he listened to the hum of the universe. The shout of children: the sound of the surf.
“I always thought you were a lucky bastard. Island assignment with a wife to die for.”
“Life’s a beach.”
It took some time for his friend to catch the pun. The delayed reaction came as a snort erupting into a belly-shaking laugh. After a while, Prof. Hernandez sat back and also contemplated the deep emptiness of a cloudless sky.
“Peace, you know, is boring. All quiet on the southern front. No religion, no ideology, no point of contention. Negative peace, they used to call it. And what do we have when there is no moral equivalent of war? Overworked shrinks who look forward to a week of vacation on your island, courtesy of the Association of Psychologists of Gaia. With a raffle ticket. First prize: a nubile companion for sexual health.”
“I can put you in jail for such heresy, my friend.”
“Raul, whatever happened to your sense of humor? Are you honest only when you are drunk? I remember you giggling at the social engineering of our elementary years. History is a nightmare I am trying to wake from. Holy Gaia, the platitudes we used to memorize then.”
Capt. Daza. took a moment to glance sidewise at his friend and observe the changes on his friend’s face: the thinning hair, the wrinkles. The professor’s strained sense of humor was directly proportional to a year’s work of listening to the delusions of his patients. Capt. Daza did not want to spoil his friend’s vacation by relating his own anguish over his wife’s adultery.
“Have you heard of Sigmund Freud?” asked Prof. Hernandez.
“No. But I’m ready for a lecture.”
“Minor heretic from the 20th century.”
“Been reading him.”
“Part of the censored list?”
“Who cares? Nobody believes him, right?”
Capt. Daza stiffened. He could hear the coconut fronds whirring above them.
“That’s another problem with the Reign of the Ahistorians. Anything ancient is relegated to academic mumbo-jumbo. Black magic, witchcraft, and, as you called them a while ago, the cultists.”
With his eyes closed, Capt. Daza merely nodded. The sea breeze was soporific; he only had a few hours of sleep the night before—he had the same dream of blue turtles. The words coming from his friend on the adjacent recliner wove well with his dreamy state. “Anyway, anyway. Old man Freud believed we are not totally rational beings whose wills can be manipulated that easily. This ancient heretic thought that there is a dark, murky sea inside each one of us. And in this sea, floating like an iceberg, is the undefinable mass of animal urges we try to suppress: sex, violence, the big no-nos of civilization. But it’s there, floating, waiting to emerge from the waters, the iceberg of the Unconscious.”
Capt. Daza could almost see it, the crystal mountain of ice floating in his mind. He felt like a passenger on an exploration ship plumbing the depths of his own psyche. He was standing on the bow of the ship, looking at the cold slippery mass of iceberg. He could almost touch it, the whale of a great myth.
“Fantastic, isn’t it?”
Capt. Daza felt sea-sick with the vision. He fluttered his eyes open and was surprised to see blue sky instead of murky waters.
“And here we are in the age of genetic determinism, trying to be rational about everything. Law and order: you patrol this island in the daylight and everything is under control.
But you only scratch the surface, my friend. You cannot control the subterranean life of this island. Do you remember what it feels like to patrol at night? You are an agent of the day intruding into the realm of the night. You cannot control the darkness: you can even be swallowed by it.”
Capt. Daza was almost certain his friend was a heretic, a cultist. Nevertheless, he was the only one he could freely joke with, get drunk with. Prof. Hernandez was a darned good story-teller and lecturer.
“Outwardly, everything is peaceful. Pax Gaia: history has been manipulated for social ends. Do you know that Mundano was the only island which resisted colonization for centuries? That is, until the Great Upheaval. What kept them from being swallowed by economic and spiritual globalization was a narrow-minded adherence of the inhabitants to some sacred myths, their belief in some sort of collective unconscious. What you have are the tattered remnants of those peoples. Tusugs were pirates; now they are smugglers of contraband films. Marnaws were gypsy traders; now they peddle pornographic materials under their malongs. Pax Gaia is an operative reality in the mainland, but not here, my friend. Not in Mundano. That is why I say you live a more interesting life here. The Great Upheaval may have erased all forms of non-scientific habits of thinking in the mainland—religion, tribe, superstition—but when you remove the social scaffolding through radical engineering, you come up with distorted remnants of the old ways of thinking: cults, underground economy in fetish films, inversion of values. These are all manifested here in your jurisdiction.”
“Edwin, I’ve had second thoughts about the lecture. Go back to your vacation.”
“No, no. Listen. Outwardly everything is peaceful. But peace can only be sustained against the backdrop of its antithesis. This is supposed to be the golden age, Pax Gaia has been running on for two centuries. And what do we have? Slippages. Cracks. You deal with cultists and film piracy; I deal with emotional breakdowns. We are looking at the same chunk of ice, my friend.”
Prof. Hernandez swivelled his legs to the side and sat up to make a point. “The war, my friend, is very much alive, here.” And he jabbed a finger at Capt. Daza’s heart. “You cannot dam up a river. When I talk to a patient, I hear the rumbling of a volcano about to erupt.”
Capt. Daza felt offended by the mixed metaphors. His sternum was tingling where his friend had dipped a finger.
“Great Gaia, Raul, if I can harness all the potential energy from those walking volcanoes, it would blow up this planet to smithereens.”
Capt. Daza sat up on his beach chair and scanned the shoreline. Daisy was coming out of the water, her body cleaving the sea fracted with diamonds. It was a sight too bright and dazzling for comfort; he collapsed back on his reclining chair with tears in his eyes. After a while, he blurted: “Edwin, you think I’m a lucky bastard?” Take this, you whining bastard. “My wife is having an affair.” One. “I’m impotent.” Two. “This island is boring me to death.” Three.
Prof. Hernandez was finally silent. Three axioms to describe my life and a shrink shrinks back? The children were shouting on the sandbar. The universe hums: time to listen to the background static. After a while, Prof. Hernandez was able to find his voice again.
“Holy Gaia, Raul, I don’t need another client. I’m supposed to be on vacation here.”
“Can you do me a favor?” Capt. Daza had put on his eyeshade and was smiling enigmatically.
“Shut up. I don’t need your help.”
“Oh, yes, you do, my friend,” Prof. Hernandez had lost his tone of levity. “People who don’t think so are the ones who actually need my help.”
But Capt. Daza had blocked out his chatter; he was listening to the message of the surf. The black radiation was hissing from the navel of the universe.
Capt. Daza would rather look at the moon rising over the waters. His bedroom had a perfect view of the sea. The sea, the sea—he thought his life on the island would be a constant honeymoon with this view of the sea.
“I said I’m leaving.”
All right, you bitch.
“Can’t you at least wait until the turtles come?”
“This is not about sex, Raul.”
“Then tell me what this is all about.” He suddenly pivoted around and hurled the photographs at her. He screamed: “Tell me why you are fucking around!” The pictures could have been peddled by the cultists at the Taw-taw wharf: breasts, cocks, sexual gymnastics.
Daisy flushed. At first she looked more embarrassed than sorry.
Capt. Daza thought Daisy looked virginal in her sadness, in her sincerity, in her innocent act of clutching the curtain.
“It’s not about you, Raul.” Like him, she was groping for the truth. In an age of political honesty, she knew that words were useless. Her tears, when they came, could not even defend her.
Ten years down the drain, Capt. Daza thought, and all she could do was cry.
“If it’s not about me, is this about you?”
She vigorously shook her head but Capt. Daza did not know yes from no anymore. It could have been a desperate gesture by anyone under tactical interrogation: the shaking of the head. “Are you the bored housewife who fucks the gardener because her husband can’t get it up?”
“No, Raul, it’s more than that.” Her whole body was now trembling as, very slowly, she sat on the edge of their bed. She seemed to be trying to catch her breath but Capt. Daza refused to be taken in by her damsel-in-distress act.
“You want a baby?”
She shook her head.
“Are you bored here? Because if you are, I can request for a reassignment to the mainland. You won’t get bored there. There are classical concerts there. Music to elevate the soul. And movies. Legally sanctioned movies.” How could he sound so pathetic to himself?
“Listen, Daisy.” He knelt down in front of her and tried to hold her hands but she just looked away. “I can still do it.” There was now a surging passion in his words. “The turtles are coming.” He could see them like a vision of his rejuvenated self. “It always works, Daisy. I have a new film from the archives.” His voice edged on to the verge of panic. “We can watch it together as a prelude to making love. It always works, you know. The turtle soup, the films?” His eyes were now sparkling in the moonlight.
“You’re sick, Raul,” she hissed. “You’re sick.” A thread of saliva spun out of her mouth as his fist struck her cheekbone. She fell back on the bed with a crack from his belt.
“Holy Gaia, Daisy, you’re so beautiful.” Capt. Daza started unbuckling his trousers. “I want you to suck my cock, Daisy?” He switched on the digital camera projector and the shadows began to flicker on the bedroom wall. “Please, Daisy, suck my cock like you used to do?” The montage began to play again, the pornography from the past merging with the figures on the bed, the violins and the horses and the crazy woman and the bolo and a hero falling to his death.
Outside the window, by the light of the moon, the turtles were creeping in from the dark waters of the humming sea. Ω
This story won first prize in the 2001 Palanca competition for future fiction.