IT was a plague of locusts. Fray Montano should have seen the signs. There had been three weeks of an unusually dry spell during the locusts’ mating season, and the rains that might have controlled the size of their population had not fallen. Then just when the locusts should have come swarming into the kaingin fields, they had not and he should have known why. They were making love like locusts. The people were coming into his church and confessing that they had made love like locusts the night before and the night before that. They had, in fact, been making love like locusts every night for the past week.
Once, many years ago, when he was new to this mission village, there had been a pestilence of frogs but it had stopped with what seemed to him inexplicable suddenness, until he discovered why when the whole village started coming to him for absolution because they were making love like frogs.
He had admonished them over and over again that there was only one position that God had intended human beings to do it in. So what if the summer months would go on well into what should have been the rainy months of June and July? If such vagaries of the weather would bring in a horde of bayawaks to attack the village chickens, that would be God’s will and nature was not to be tampered with, certainly not with perversions like the bayawak position or the frog position and now this-the locust position!
The silence that followed his counsel told him that it had come too late. They had already made love like bayawaks. They had done the mating dance, navel to navel and pelvis to pelvis, before he had come and this was probably the reason why he had been sent here. These people had driven his predecessor Fray Duertas desperate with loneliness and s in the tropical sun to atone for the world’s sins; he would fell but one tree to build his little prayer hut of thatch and wood; he would lie naked on the grass at night and expose himself to leeches that would cleanse his soul of all its impurities. There was much work to be done on himself before he would even deem himself worthy of saving other people’s souls.
“Laziness, drunkenness and lust,” Fray Duertas stressed to him, ticking each off with his finger. “These are your Enemies. Never let Them take over these indios’ souls, although I must warn you they are so easily afflicted. So keep them busy, keep them working. Next thing you know they’ll be doing it like snails. Then where will your mission be? Clear the forests, build roads and bridges, plant fruit trees. That church still needs a nave and a taller belfry. I tell you, if that last pestilence hadn’t weakened my heart?” And his voice trailed off, leaving in its wake dreams of stone houses standing in colonial splendor around a magnificent church with buttresses, apses and spires soaring to the sky, defying the typhoons and earthquakes that were this island’s curse.
Fray Montano had no desire to match Duertas’ nervous energy, for it would have been a futile ambition. Already, composos of this stone fortress that Fray Duertas had just completed, which would house the most powerful Poon in the world, were being sung around the island, from the coastal village of Hunob-Hunob in the north to the mountain fastness of Kanlaon in the south. When a traveling manugcomposo took it to a tabuan, where the people converged to barter their goods, another one would pick it up and take it to the next tabuan, where Duertas’ feat took on even more miraculous proportions.
During the months before Montano had come, the six other frayles on the island had visited, and even those as far away as Luzon had begun writing to inquire, because they wanted to know how Duertas had managed to solve the most basic architectural problem that had them sticking to wood-and-nipa churches. How was Duertas able to build such a heavy structure on such shifty soil in this typhoon-and-earthquake-ravaged land?
After giving several private lectures on it to these priests, Duertas finally decided he might as well publish the sketches and the secret of his engineering principle. He sent his manuscript to the bishop for the imprimatur, and this was the primary reason why he was eagerly awaiting Fray Montano’s arrival. Fray Montano was handcarrying the bishop’s reply, contained in a sealed envelope.
But Fray Montano was startled to witness Duertas suddenly fall on his knees after reading the bishop’s letter, beating his breast and muttering ejaculations that Fray Montano could only hope was the litany to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Fray Montano picked up the letter that Duertas had let drop to the floor and read it.
“Your request for permission to publish the enclosed manuscript is denied,” the bishop’s letter began, “on the grounds that it contains several obscene words and tends to conjure indecent imagery. I enjoin you to devote your days instead to building roads and bridges and your nights to prayer and self-flagellation, for an idle mind is the devil’s playground.
“It has also come to my attention,” the bishop’s letter continued, “that dictionaries of this archipelago’s many languages are already being published by other frayles, but there is none on Hiligaina. Does your flock know its catechism, the commandments, the teachings of the church? Can they name the seven deadly sins and all other vices that these spawn if you do not know the words in their language to point these out to them? Are you doing anything, Fray Duertas, about this sorry dereliction to spiritual duty?”
On his last day at Pueblo Buyonan, as he was turning the parish over to Fray Montano, Fray Duertas thrust the offending manuscript into the younger frayle’s hands and urged him, “Burn it. It is the work of the devil and I have allowed myself to be his plaything. Even now, I am n when an indio came to him, salakot in hand. This indio had been one of Fray Duertas’ construction workers on the church. Before he came to settle in Pueblo Buyonan, he had been part of a traveling group that went from tabuan to tabuan, bartering entertainment for food, clothing and a few reales. His specialty was a balancing act on a length of bamboo placed end to end on a pair of rocks. By the time he got to the middle of the bamboo pole to do his somersaults, he would be so unnerved by the people’s jeering that he would fall to the ground three feet below. This was an island where people crossed crocodile-infested rivers on lengths of bamboo everyday, so where was the wonder in this?
He became known as Pedro Latay and everywhere he went, children teased him with bamboo riddles like: Nahadluk ka sa isa; Sa tatlo wala. One day, his itinerant group of entertainers was performing in Pueblo Buyonan when Fray Duertas had looked out of his convent window into the plaza to see what the hooting and howling was all about, and he espied Pedro’s pathetic act as a bamboo walker. The frayle then decided to put the poor indio’s balancing skills to better use. Thus was Pedro Latay recruited as a construction worker for the church, and he was tasked with attaching the church’s ceiling beams and roof.
Now he had a proposal for Fray Montano.
“Padre, I think I can help you find the source of the iput,” he began helpfully. “I remember that some of the ceiling beams have natural niches on them and I’m sure these are where the birds’ nests are. I’ll be able to spot them if I can look at the whole design of the church.”
Fray Montano shook his head and replied, “No, Pedro.” He offered no explanation, for he had found that in this town, the truth sprouted many heads, and whatever explanation he gave would be as valid as the many versions it would give birth to overnight over bamboo cups of tuba.
But the people were staying away more and more from the church, in spite of his protestations from the pulpit, for they were an obsessively clean race who liked to bathe instantly at the sign of any uncleanness on their person. They were now confronted with a dilemma, since they had taken it upon their heads that to bathe right after Sunday mass was an affront to God, because it would be treating Him like dirt. This belief took firm root when, on one Sunday, one of them did not even wait for the Mass to end but, as soon as he felt the shit dropping on his head, he jumped up with a whoop! and ran to the river, where he was instantly pulled under by God’s angel of death. They found his bloated corpse three days later caught in the roots of the mangrove trees.
Finally, Fray Montano decided that, to save the whole village from the sin against the third commandment, he and one indio could break the sixth. He and Pedro held their breaths as he gingerly turned the pages until he spotted the passage marked with a red underline by the censor’s disapproving hand:
“The top layer of riverbank soil is all sand. But if we want our churches to be tall and massive fortresses, these cannot be built on sand. In the case of the Buyonan Church, the bedrock on which its foundation rests is 29 feet beneath. This means that hardwood piles 29 feet long were driven all the way down to the bedrock. Hence, the grip of the sand on the whole length of each pile is as important as having the pile rest on the bedrock. Just as a tightly clenched fist can grip a quill, so the sand has a vise-like grip on each pile, thus assuring a solid foundation for the church to be built on.”
Beside the text was a sketch of the hardwood pile thrusting through the sand and another detailed sketch of the sand’s vise-like grip on a pile. The last few pages of the manuscript included recipes for leche flan, yema, tocino del cielo, and other such sweets requiring inordinate amounts of eggyolk, along with Fray Duertas’ advice that, because eggwhite was the ingredient that made a powerful glue for the church’s stonewalls, the indias could then put the barrels of superfluous eggyolk to commercial use.
So there it was at last¾henceforth, Fray Duertas would always be remembered as the frayle who grew fat on the indios’ labor and who kept his virginity intact by distracting himself with his vise-like grip on his pile and a fist tightly clenched around his quill; unless Fray Montano could keep his colluding partner, the indio beside him, silent on what they had just read. Under pain of the corporal punishment of flogging and three days without food and water in the stocks, plus the spiritual punishment of everlasting fire and brimstone in the afterlife, Pedro made the promise to Fray Montano that he would never divulge any of this.
He kept to his word, although this was not because he was afraid of any of Fray Montano’s threats on his own person. Fray Montano had devised a much more effective method of ensuring the indios’ meekness. Whenever any of them offended God, Fray Montano would stand on the pulpit and paint a sorrowful picture of the bleak months of Divine Punishment in store for all of them because of one indio’s betrayal of God’s trust. And so, when the next pestilence, epidemic, flood, draught, or violent storm swept through the island days or weeks or months later, everyone turned to glare at the sinner who had caused God’s wrath to fall on their collective heads.
“This,” Fray Montano would explain gently from the pulpit the following Sunday, “is how we are all punished when one of us commits the sin of disobedience.”
This was why Pedro kept his lips tightly shut however much the others probed and pried and cajoled. At every question, he firmly shook his head, self-righteous in his conviction that he was sparing the island’s whole population the next, inevitable, natural catastrophe. But this was also Pedro’s dream come true; he had never performed before an audience as riveted as the one he now had. So, he allowed them to ply him with tuba so he would have an excuse to loosen his tongue. Even then, he would only sing a loa that seemed merely tangential replies to their questions:
Didto sa amon,
Banwa sang Buyonan
May nagtubo nga hilamon,
Maitum pa sa kugon
Sa tigpihak nga pampang,
Sa tunga may bubon
May naligo nga pari,
Patay sang nag-ahon.
Song, on this island, inexorably followed the law of accretion, and so Pedro’s stanza gave birth to more stanzas, each more graphic than the last. Fray Duertas’ prowess on several levels became the stuff of myth and legend. At nightfall, when the people gathered in their cabeza’s house, they laughingly took turns singing the stanzas they already knew, and then improvised and composed new ones that had pythons and pots, cashew nuts and cassava roots, vegetables and fruits of a particular shape and size except the papaya, all standing as metaphor and metonymy for Fray Duertas and his imagined exertions.
“What shall we do about all these bastos songs, Estrella?” Fray Montano asked his friend, whom he consulted whenever indio exuberance stupefied him. Estrella was the village baylan. She had finally consented to be baptized by Fray Duertas and her name changed to Estrella when she realized that her herbs and healing prayers had no power over the strange diseases that this white race had either brought in or released like sulfurous gases from the earth’s core: smallpox, cholera, measles, malaria.
Strategic complicity was her way of life now. Whenever the epidemics struck, the frayle blessed the sick with holy water while she danced over them in a trance, so that when the people died by the hundreds, they had no idea whose curative method had failed.
Estrella was rubbing her hands with banaba leaves when he came upon her in her hut. Her right hand was blotched and scarred from burns, the fingers permanently bent like an eagle’s claws. But this was the hand that Fray Montano liked her to massage his aching head with, because the burnt skin at the tips of those claws felt as smooth and delicate as silk. She bent over him, massaging him, while whispering her pidgin Latin prayers over him: Jesus y salvo al sol, Lobis igolis isindot mo kami, Eche laurente, eche colas, eche colorum amen. He knew she was probably muttering curses on him but they had lived in wary harmony for years now and her constant attempts to foil his mission to save the indios’ souls had become a natural part of their friendship.
“Let them sing their epics again,” she said. She sat on the floor with her maimed hand on one knee and set to classifying her collection of herbs and roots with the other. The task gave her an excuse not to look at him. This was what Fray Montano liked about her most. Duplicity did not come naturally to her; the events of the times had only compelled it. “Either that or make them sing church hymns every night during their drinking sprees.”
Fray Montano winced at the thought. He had tried to teach them the Gregorian chant his first year in the pueblo, simply because he had always thought that singing and religion always went together. But the practice of music, only then did he realize, was not universal. Bel canto, pianissimo and legato were of no meaning to them, for they all produced a sound from deep in their crotch that squeezed its way up through the twists and turns of their small intestines, vibrated through each web of their lungs, wound its way through their nasal passages and exploded between tonsils that did not even quiver in surprise at the strength of the sound waves crashing through.
He sighed and conceded defeat. “You’ll have to teach them your epics, then. Can you start tonight?”
Estrella nodded and he knew she continued to look down at her herbs and roots so he would not see her smile of triumph.
He would have liked to stay in her hut a little longer, for he liked to breathe in the tangy infusion that she rubbed into her hair, a scent which mingled pleasantly with the dried aroma of her herbs and roots. He wished he could burn her concoctions and use the ashes for his church rituals, instead of incense, whose smoke stung his nose and clung to his hair and cassock. This was the smell he carried with him all the time, much to his agony, especially when he was within the convent, whose walls reeked of the fried goat’s meat that had been Fray Duertas’ daily diet, and the briny smell that his servants exuded.
But of course Fray Montano’s business with Estrella was done here and it would not do for the indios to think that he was staying so long because she was driving a hard bargain. The friar and the baylan were known only to negotiate, never to converse. And always some deal was struck with each of them thinking that he or she had gained the upper hand.
That night, Estrella sat on the floor of her hut, placed an herb-smoothened hand on one knee and a claw on the other, and then commenced her magical incantation. Her Time stood still as her voice painted pictures: of the three Buyungs of royal birth, of their hunt for wives who ruled the different levels of the Hiligaina cosmos, of the great battle between them and their common enemy Yawa, the god of darkness, whose wife they wanted to capture for the eldest prince, Buyung Labaw Donggon. Estrella’s song traveled beyond the huts clustered around the church, toward the isolated ones standing on mountain slopes that not even the tolling of the church bells could reach, for her chanting was the kind of music that the great god Makagagahum had shaped the indios’ voices for. It was strong and powerful so it could stir the diwatas from their hiding places-the earth mounds where they had curled themselves into foetus positions, the depths of caves where they had sulked at the people’s neglect, the tree trunks where they had gotten themselves entangled in the vines for the past hundred years.
Estrella stopped to take a breath and found she could not go on. The Buyungs’ balangay refused to fly from the seashore and meet the villainous Yawa in the clouds where they were supposed to do battle, because it was waiting for an audience’s cheers to lift it from where it sat like a dead tree stump. Were the Buyungs doing the right thing or conquest.
But Fray Montano found that Fray Duertas already had in fact the manuscript of an almost comprehensive dictionary hidden away in his escritorio. Fray Duertas had probably been so shaken by the bishop’s reprimand over his church design that he was no longer sure exactly which of his dictionary entries might be offensive in the bishop’s eyes. He had concluded that his dictionary was another devil’s playground, and so he had hidden it away in shame, vowing never again to engage in any project involving the written word.
But the dictionary was missing several important words. Montano had discovered this after one bawdy song about Duertas’ solitary contortions had wafted its way through his convent window, and he wanted to know which parts of the human anatomy its words were referring to. Duertas’ dictionary provided no explanation. But it would not do for the indios to know something that Montano didn’t, for that would give them an excuse to exchange knowing looks and impute different meanings to anything he said from the pulpit or the confessional.
Fray Montano was relieved to realize that he did not have to start a dictionary from the letter a and only had to insert the words he needed to add to Duertas’ work. But as he proceeded, he found that one word led on to another, and the hopping and jumping from one letter to another separated by a sea of letters almost had him in tears. He had to compose a separate list of his own words first, and this preliminary list would not be arranged alphabetically but would be thematically classified: parts of the human anatomy, kitchen utensils, fruits, vegetables; and then there were the parts of speech, especially the verbs.
As Montano compiled his vocabulary, he found more and more categories to divide the indio language into. Words missing from Duertas’ dictionary were those which conjured images of orifices, phalluses, attitudes of naughtiness, certain kinds of laughter, ways of eating and drinking, positions of verticality, horizontality and perpendicularity, spirals and arrows, numbers and games, weapons and tools, dryness and wetness. Duertas, in his censor’s zeal, had been far from comprehensive, after all; and this was exactly what might have vindicated him in their bishop’s eyes.
For the first time since he arrived on this island, Fray Montano was truly happy in his solitude. As his list of words lengthened, the indios’ world began to manifest itself, and what had been its daunting unpredictability became simply a matter of singular inevitability. Months stretched into years as Montano worked at his dictionary and, as the pure fury of his classifications rose around him, only the indios in their prescience knew that he was drowning in waves of words that had lost their referents.
He ventured out of the convent only to hurry through confessions on Saturdays and mass on Sundays-much to the indios’ delight-and did not see that his feet imprinted themselves more and more deeply into the earth, because he was steadily growing corpulent in spite of his complete disdain for food and all things material. In fact, he fasted four days a week, and since he hardly knew what day of the week it was any more, there were weeks when his fasting days ran into each other and he accumulated savings of fasting days enough to merit indulgence points in excess of his purgatory time.
And yet his body kept manufacturing its own fat as steadily as his list of words shed their referents. ‘Fray Botod’, the indios called him behind his back, and composos began to be sung of the fat and lazy frayle of Pueblo Buyonan who spent his days sleeping in his convent, sleeping through the Mass, sleeping in the confessional.
But Fray Montano, in fact, was now caught in a conundrum. Every night, his list of words for the day haunted him and refused to let him sleep. They invaded his mind in words coupling like dogs, jellyfish, lady-and-lordbugs, even papaya trees and the shrinking mimosa. He added nine more strokes to his nightly ritual of self-flagellation and recited all the litanies to all the saints, legendary and real. But the ejaculations only brought him images of liquid in various degrees of density spurting from towers of ivory into vessels of gold. He forced his mind to dwell on harmless things-but everything had lost its innocence. He could find no way of forgetting.
He finally found his solution when his sacristan, a young indio, came to him one day in the confessional. “I have been playing with myself, Padre. I am so ashamed and so afraid. I have begun to forget the answers to the catechism. I can now remember only seven of the ten commandments; I lose the words of the Ave Maria and find them while I am praying the Padre Nuestro; and so I forget how to go on with the Padre Nuestro?”
“One has got nothing to do with the other, hijo; playing with yourself and forgetting your prayers are simply two separate sins. You must apply your hands to more constructive tasks, to real hard work like clearing the fields, so your palms will become rough; they will have such hard calluses you will feel only pain if you play with yourself. As for your prayers, you must apply your whole mind and heart to them whenever you utter them and not let your mind wander?”
“No no no, Padre.” The boy was frantic. “My iloy has warned me over and over again that every time I play with myself, part of my soul is stolen and taken to the cave of forgetfulness. If I keep doing it, I will soon forget who she is, where I live, who I ever was. And I am, I am beginning to forget. I have forgotten what comes after the number seven, so I cannot pray the Ave Maria more than seven times for every decade of the rosary. I do not know what comes after the month of July or what day comes after Sunday?”
In the confessional, Fray Montano taught the boy the coconut song so he would always remember all the months of the year, especially those that went beyond July: ? junio julyo agosto, septiembre octubre, noviembre diciembre, lubi-lubi. Together they sang while other penitent indios waited outside and hoped their own sins would stimulate as much musical gusto.
For the sacristan’s penance, Fray Montano commanded him to pray the Ave Maria seven times plus one every day for one week, seven times plus two in the second week, and seven times plus three in the third. Thus, he would learn how to count again to ten, beyond which indios had no need to go. This was why God had given them only ten fingers in the first place. Finally, he advised the boy to study his catechism over and over again; the important thing was to fill his mind with sacred thoughts. An idle mind, he repeated the bishop’s admonition to Fray Duertas, was the devil’s playground.
Yet Fray Montano’s very problem was that his own mind could not stay idle. It was fertile land that had been plowed and furrowed and planted to crops of such wild diversity he was now reaping a harvest of eggplants and bananas and nippled coconuts and thrusting root crops and clitoral rice grains and pubic-haired corncobs. And so, trusting in the wisdom of old wives and mothers, Fray Montano did exactly the abhorrent thing that ate up one’s brain. To erase the memory of everything that he had written each day, he expended himself each night, his hand like a tightly clenched fist gripping a quill like a hardwood pile driving through sand and oh the glorious feel of the vise-like grip on the pile and finally the pile resting on the bedrock, thus assuring a solid foundation for the church to be built on.
Day by day, Fray Montano’s vocabulary of indio sensuousness steadily expanded in direct proportion to his girth but in indirect proportion to his memory. Week by week, the indios began to notice that portions of the Mass were dropping off, like the rotting parts of a leper’s body. At first, it was the less essential parts, like the homily, and, if anyone noticed that he had skipped the Epistle to go straight into the Gospel, it was with a sense of relief and tacit collusion with what they thought was the frayle’s desire to abbreviate the Mass, for it was the height of summer and even both indios and indias themselves were suffering from the sticky feel of their sinamay shirts on their sweating bodies.
Every morning, Fray Montano forgot the words that he had listed the day before because a brain cell had died in the night, and he did not know that he was repeating himself, adding old words to even older words, so that there was no end to his lexicographic task.
“We are always beginning anew,” Fray Duertas had told him once, sadly, as he was turning over the mission to Fray Montano. “The indios come and have themselves baptized. They would leave their huts in the mountains to live within hearing distance of the church bells for a few months. But one day I’d wake and find they’d slipped away in the night, because these indios like to move around, searching for fields they can slash and burn. Then they go back to their pagan ways.”
Fray Montano was always beginning anew. The sheets of paper on which he wrote his lists began to spill out of drawers and cabinets where he had hidden them away from curious indio eyes, because even if the indios did not know how to read, the shapes of the letters themselves were enough to stir anyone’s libido.
One day the cabeza came to him in anxiety over the number of huts that were increasingly being abandoned. “Te, Padre, the people are deserting us,” he said. “I will be the one to pay for all the missing tribute if I hardly have anything to remit,” he added pleadingly and waved his accounting records in the frayle’s face. “The pueblo’s population keeps decreasing everyday, but the gobernadorcillo will never believe such an obvious truth as this. He will accuse me of abusing my privilege to cheat.”
To convince the gobernadorcillo of the legitimacy of his accounting excesses, the cabeza had devised an ingenious mathematical formula involving demography, statistics, volume, weight, and the ritualistic slitting of chicken stomachs for the inspection of bile, liver and entrails. Being cabeza was a most gratifying position if one’s frayle was normal, but of what use was a frayle who did not stand on the pulpit and roar at them-in a voice that seemed to be coming out of the whirlwind-for not remitting their cash of two-and-a-half reales plus another two-and-a-half reales’ worth of rice, medriñaque wine, beeswax and one chicken per head?
When Fray Montano was new to the village, the cabeza was most pleased to discover this frayle’s disinterest in the fat of the land and the produce of the poor, unlike Fray Duertas who presumed it his right to receive half of everything that the cabeza was able to cheat the government out of. But the cabeza saw the justice in that, for after all, Frayle Duertas had used the law of the polo to force the people into clearing the fields and planting crops and vegetables and fruit trees. They had not only had enough food to eat then but enough surplus to afford the tribute.
But now the human demography was practically nil while the fowl population was overrunning the village. The chickens were laying eggs and hatching them in alarming numbers because no one was slaughtering and eating them. The cabeza was certain that he was running afoul of the whole chain of command, of which he was at the very bottom, when all he could account for was 4,972 chickens, of which only one chicken per human head, remember, was to be remitted. How to account for the dwindling number of human heads while the chickens multiplied?
“Did you have something to do with this, Estrella?” Montano asked his friend in what he hoped was a voice stern enough to extract a confession from her. He stood over her as she squatted by the spring that the people still remembered to call the Tuburan sang Tigulang. It was the only place now to which Estrella could still summon her spirit-friends because it was here that they had first taught her to walk on water. He knew she could make people disappear by leading them astray from one world to another, and he would not put it past her to hatch up this scheme so that she could make him disappear, for of course his very survival depended on the size of his congregation.
She snorted as she dipped her bamboo tube into the water. “This was all your own doing this time. Your Señor neighbor has been recruiting them and has bought their loyalty with promises of lodging and wages for their labor in his hacienda. And your governor is happy about this because you have allowed them to get used to so much idleness. Now what do you have to offer?”
He stared into the spring and said softly, “No matter how long the road, it will still come back to the church.”
He trusted in the Lord; the Lord would find a way to bring them back. Fray Duertas had said that they were always beginning anew. The indios kept leaving but they always came back. They delighted too much in all the ritual and pomp of the white encantos’ religion. It would be a drab life indeed for them if they did not have their processions, fiestas and Christmas daygon. All he had to do was wait for them to realize that the Señor in the hacienda was going to renege on his promises and would not hesitate to take the whip to them. It was going to be worse than forced labor, because they were not going to enjoy the fruit of its harvest. One could only live so long on sugarcane juice.
“The Tuburan is drying up,” she warned, pointing with her claw to the waterline that was a fraction of a centimeter above the water surface, “because it knows to what evil the water of this island is being put. Fray Duertas is turning rivers into ditches that will water only sugarcane. He is installing wheels in the water to run the machine that will crush my people’s blood out of the cane. He is flattening our diwatas’sinalimba chariots into barges to carry the people’s spirits in jute sacks into your kapre’s diamond world, from where they will never return. And you-you’re dying, Padre. The next one who replaces you will have to begin anew if you don’t stop the few who are still here from running away too.”
Montano had long ago stopped trying to understand his friend’s sense of time, which-he had learned through many confusing conversations with her-was a labyrinth of tunnels leading to remote, recent and immediate pasts and an equally bewildering number of tunnels leading to synchronic presents and futures. Somewhere in her future, she saw him dying; but he was only 46 and he thought he still had 52 years to go.
But he caught Estrella’s sense of alarm, however vaguely, because he too worried about the fate of the indios’ souls. That night, Fray Montano was kept awake, this time not by the agony of staring at the gray blankness of his aphasia, but by his anxiety over his vanishing congregation.
By Sunday, Fray Montano had decided what to do. He was sure he would be able to solve this newest problem if he could just expand his taxonomy of indio luxuria and concupiscence and thus keep their souls encaged behind column after column of words.
At Mass that day, Fray Montano spoke from the pulpit with a lucidity that startled his handful of loyal parishioners.
“Confess,” he urged them, “confess your sins with the humility of a sinner who stands naked before God.” He clutched the edge of the pulpit as he leaned forward, his whole body sweating with earnestness. And the indios sat and listened avidly as he gave them thorough instruction on how to make sincere and thorough confession.
“And when you sinned against the sixth commandment, of what relation to you was the man or woman you committed the sin with? Were they married or single? If a cousin, how many times removed? And how many years, months or weeks have you been committing this sin? Do you do it everyday, every other day, or what? And do you tease each other with both word and hand? And as you grope and tug and stroke, do you become wet? And where there are three or four of you gathered together to engage in this play, how many of you are married? And do you ever engage in intercourse with an animal? What kind of animal? How many times? In secrecy or in the presence of other people? How many people??”
Fray Montano began finally to understand what it meant to speak in tongues; the Holy Spirit had given him the gift and he could feel Him like a gush of cool liquid that had suddenly broken through the stalactites and stalagmites of his brain and heart and arteries and innards and come out of his mouth with the translucence of spring water that had lain hidden in a cave for 319 years. He offered them 567 more guidelines that he rattled off the top of his head as he went along, describing sin after sin, thinking up permutations upon permutations along the way. For the first time, his flock sat still and listened with unflagging interest.
Thence did his people tell their hyperbolic stories in the confessional with such relish that they decided to stay and remain the devout Catholics that Fray Montano assured them they were for keeping their lives like an open book to him.
One morning Fray Montano was dreaming that he was flying on a strand of Estrella’s perfumed hair over the map of Spain, from Isabela to Magallon to Pontevedra to Zaragoza to Valladolid to Alegria to Cadiz to Escalante to Calatrava to Toboso. He was just about to get to Siguenz when he drifted from sleep to realize that it was his sacristan outside his window who was reciting all the Spanish town names in a singsong voice. The boy’s father had taught the boy all the rhymes that Fray Montano had taught him a long time ago so he would not be imprisoned in the cave of forgetfulness. But this rhyme was unfamiliar to the frayle.
“Oy, Juan,” the frayle called out to the boy from his window, “and have the textbooks from Spain arrived then? Are you reading about my country’s geography?”
The boy looked up at him guiltily and felt impelled to confess, “No, Padre, it’s the song my Tatay taught me so I could memorize all the town names on this island.”
The indios had been bringing home stories from the tabuan about the single road that Fray Duertas had built from his pueblo. It was sprouting more branches like a balete tree as younger frayles came to build more churches and roads while their kin came to build more haciendas. The frayles were now trying to conquer this strange land by baptizing their mission villages with the names of the towns from where they had come. But Montano had only to smell Estrella’s roots and herbs and to gaze at the agile fingers of her good hand to know that the island’s 12,700 square kilometers of ember-spewing volcano, hostile flora and fauna, and human-devouring bodies of water refused to resemble anything and remained stubbornly, unashamedly itself.
Yet the island, in truth, did not always win the battle to keep its original topography intact. There was the composo about the contest of wits between the monkey and the crocodiles. The monkey, named Pedro Latay, was the leader of a group of monkeys who wanted to cross to the other side of the river, where bananas were plentiful. But the crocodiles lay in wait for them and would not be duped again into floating end to end so that the monkeys could walk over them to the other side. So Pedro Latay tied bamboo poles together with rattan strips to make a cage and strung it with another rattan strip from a tree branch. He got into the cage and instructed his fellow monkeys to lower him down into the water. He then thrust his arms out through the bamboo bars and erected the foundations of what was to be the first bridge on the island, while the crocodiles banged their snouts against the cage in frustration. Defeated, the diwata of the river finally called her pet crocodiles away and they never came back. Fray Montano thought vaguely that perhaps this Pedro Latay, the monkey, had once been his cook’s pet that had escaped from the convento, for its name and its skill at balancing and building sounded familiar to him.
In the last summer of his life, Fray Montano climbed up the bell tower himself to ring the bells for the Angelus. As he looked down from his great height, he thought he was a child again in Siguenz, gazing at the most magnificent procession he had ever seen in his life. Lights were being lit one by one in a long line along the coast of the island as the bells tolled. It was a line that led from one parish church to another, so that no matter how great the distance it covered, the procession of lights ended and began at a church. The indio workers who were building the roads and bridges had taken to working at night and sleeping by day to avoid being roasted by the summer sun. The helpful frayles of the island, themselves caught in the fever of Fray Duertas’ building mania, had provided each of them with a gas lamp. The long line of gas lamps burning in the night steadily moved forward as the work progressed.
Mothers began to sing their children to sleep with the composo about the cruel frayles who forced indios to work in the heat of the sun; at night they had only their gaseras to see through the inky darkness.
By this time, Fray Montano was preparing to die in his convento in Pueblo Buyonan. He was only 59 but the year was 1898. From the day he started work on his dictionary, he had never stopped. In fact, toward the last years of his life, he had stepped up his listing to a more frenetic pace when he began to notice that his secret cache of indio luxuria and concupiscence was vanishing, for the ink in which he had written the words was fading. Soon, all that would remain to testify that Fray Montano had once been Pueblo Buyonan’s parish priest were hundreds of blank sheets of paper, on which the next frayle, perhaps, would continue what Fray Duertas had already finished, the Arte de la Lengua Bisaya-Hiligaina de la Isla del Negros.
Fray Montano lay on his hardwood cot by the window of his convent to listen to Estrella rehearsing her people in the singing of the pasyon. Once, a very long time ago, he had hoped to teach them how to sing the life and passion of Christ in the style of the Gregorian chant. But Fray Duertas had only laughed uproariously and sneered, “Ha! You’ll never get the mountain out of their voices.”
He was right of course. Estrella, epic chanter and choir director, gave her people the voice of Taghuy and Haguyong, spirit guardians of all chanters, and the indio voices
rose, hard and sharp as limestone, straight toward Makagagahum, jolting him awake from his sleep on the mountain, waking Him to avenge His Son’s pain and suffering. The limestone voices hit the sun and it splintered into bolos, daggers, krises and spears that swelled into the roar of all the mountain’s waterfalls, crashing on boulders below. The voices rose again and hovered above the tops of trees like hoisted water and the clouds that tried to hold them up groaned with the weight of their tone and pitch and volume. Christ’s pasyon was the song of battle, of lamentation, of defiance, of victory, of celebration. It was Ibay Padalugdug’s thunderclap and earthquake, Sumanggi Linti’s lightning flash and storm. Still Taghuy and Haguyong flew around the convent and Fray Salvador Montano thought that he was weeping because at last he too could hear their voices and he was sure that from now on they would never leave and he wept because he knew that for every move he had made in his life he had to answer only to them in this completely alien this God-forsaken village in which God had willed that he should stay to do His bidding.
Estrella came when she heard him calling for her in his weeping. Stay with me, he asked her silently because there were no more words needed between them. She lay beside him and cradled his head on her shoulder and he breathed in the sweet tangy scent of her hair, oloroso, agridulce and sampaguita, these were the only words in his dictionary that he had tried desperately to efface from his memory because he knew they were the one the only true occasion for sin but these were the only words that had clung to him as tenaciously as Fray Duertas’ goat breath and the servants’ briny smell and finally he gave in to the terror of Yawa, the Consummator, squatting on his chest, pouring water into his nose and mouth but he could not struggle free because he could not move with Yahweh’s weight on his chest, pouring water into his nose until at last he could no longer smell anything. Ω
©2001 by Rosario Cruz Lucero
This story won first prize in the 2001 Palanca competition for short story in English.