24 August 1896
We’ve been found.
My blood rushes to my ears with every step taking me closer to where I need to be. I glance left and right on the corners of muddy Quiapo, ever aware of the guardia civil lurking in nearly every street corner - loitering like landmarks and checkpoints dressed in the pale blue of their uniforms. The milk jugs on my shoulder have been empty since noon when the sun shone oppressively on the fields and streets of Manila. I have half a mind to leave them alone on a deserted street corner or feign clumsiness and have them break against a stone on the streets. I shift their weight evenly on my shoulders and eye three guardia civil checking papers. I balance the pole on my left shoulder, holding it such that the skin on my forearm conceals the scar of my initiation.
I stand motionless for a moment, positioning myself behind the growing crowd of people eager to get past the guardias and get on with their lives. I could hear the murmurs of the people, their whispers, their anger, and annoyance at the sudden strictness of life in Manila. The Cuerpo de Vigilancia was everywhere. You didn’t know if you could tell your brother a secret or the priests a confession under threat of being outed, being imprisoned, tortured, and made to confess for crimes that you had never committed. The pole and the weight of the empty jugs dig into my shoulder. I stand and wait in hopes of getting through the guardias and further, much further, north where my brothers were waiting - where we would know what would happen next.
Thunder rolls and lightning cracks from the bay and darkness lay on the horizon. The man being inspected lays out his cedula, confirming his origins, business, and everything that the guardia needed to know. The man in pale blue shoves the cedula into his hands, causing a tear on the flimsy paper. The guardia instructs him to lift the sleeves of his barong which prompted the man to grumble and begrudgingly comply. I look at his arms and see it clean, scarless, a man who had never had to work other than for the inheritance of his father and his fathers before him. The guardia tells him to get moving and return to Binondo before the curfew and there would be no more trouble.
The crowd shuffles as people begin to shove and push, eager to escape the mud of Quiapo and the rain that had begun to creep in closer. The grumbles become expressed agitation as it devolves into people shouting their loyalties to Spain, that they were good and peace-loving subjects of the Crown, they were not Katipunan, not trouble makers, somos no infieles, somos no filibusteros, hindi cami Mason, huag niyo caming pagbintangan, ualang Katipunan sa amin dito.
Cowards, I think to myself. It was trouble we were causing, yes, but is a life under the thumb of the Kapitan-Heneral, under the thumb of the cura, and all their abuses worth it? Do we remain indios, born to serve, born to slave away, from cradle to grave?
I grip the pole of milk jugs tighter, hiding my anger and frustration, trying to mix with the growing chaos of the forming mob. A man behind me takes to shoving and the milk jugs shatter on a rock embedded in the muddy street. I find myself on my knees and staring at the broken pottery of the jugs that once made sure that I had enough to eat.
The crowd of people around me is silenced by the sound of shattering pots, I look up and see the angry face of the man who had shoved me to the ground. His face forms into a sneer and curses at me for being careless. If it had been any other day, even a few hours ago when the sun beat down hard on all the peoples of these Islands, I would have challenged his anger and for tarnishing my dignity by destroying my means of living - but that was before.
I can feel the eyes of the crowd gazing at us, shaking their heads, and looking at me as if in pity. Their attention returns to the guardias as they make haste to dissipate the crowd. I begin gathering the broken pottery shards on the mud and find a way out of the mess where I found myself. One of the guardias begins wading his way through the crowd to see the commotion. I seize a jagged piece of pottery and scratch it hard and deep on the skin along my scar, feeling both the pain of the pottery and the relief of a possible escape. I pick myself up and stare blankly at the man as the blood flows from my arm, staining my camisa and chinos with spots and streaks of bright red.
The dark clouds had come upon us and the coolness of the wind had begun to fall on a dying day in the last week of August. The sun was far beyond and behind the clouds, casting an overcast light on the bay and all the ships that floated upon it. The drizzle of the thunderstorm had begun to pepper the houses, cathedral, and shops in Quiapo. Thunder rolled as the guardias began to inspect quicker and haphazardly, eager to leave the rain and the mud of the streets like the mob that had formed around them. Arms were simply turned and cedulas waving in the air a moment ago were once again tucked into pockets. I clench my fist, pulsating between a hard and soft-grip trying to make blood gush faster out of the wound. The bamboo pole lies limp on the ground and I gaze upon it feeling sorry. I had no use for it anymore.
“What happened here?” the guardia asks
“This man,” the man behind me says, eager to explain, “is careless and tripped on a rock, shattering his milk jugs.”
I look at the man once again and feel the blood and anger rush past my ears and into my head. I squat down and pick up the bamboo pole, gripping it tightly to swing at the man’s head. But no, there have been enough delays.
“Forgive me, senyor,” I say, my anger still boiling over, “I have been out since dawn selling carabao milk.”
“That’s enough,” the guardia says, fixing his hat to better repel the rain from his face, “show me your cedulas and the undersides of your forearms.”
I retrieve my cedula under the few pesos of a day’s earnings and present it to the guardia as he hastily reads it and pushes it against our chests. We present our forearms, the other man clean and pasty white against the upturned sleeves of his barong, and mine - the right, thin and hard and brown from days of walking endless dirt streets and staving off hunger, and the left, the bloodied twin of the right.
“What happened here?” the guardia asks.
“It scraped on the broken shards when I fell.”
“Clean it and go, you have a long ways to go where you are headed, be there before the church bells ring, and there won’t be any more trouble.”
My mind freezes for a moment, did he know where I was headed? Do the guardia civil know and all is for naught? Are they going to let us gather in the dark fields and trees of Kalookan to slaughter us like pigs without dignity or honor? Was the Revolution aborted even before it began?
I smile softly, pretending to wipe the blood dripping on my arm on my camisa, and say “Salamat.” The word coming out softer than I had imagined.
I begin making my way past the guardias and begin heading north, walking faster without the milk jugs and using the bamboo pole as a walking stick. The dark blue bruised twilight had begun to drape over the walled city, the towns, and all of Manila and Kamaynilaan as the thunderstorm began to rain harder on all those under it and making the humid day feel colder and the air thicker. I wipe the blood off with the pouring rain and pull my straw hat harder down into my head, trying to pretend that my entire body is not drenched in the growing strength of the rain.
I take a deep breath and pace my walking in an attempt to understand the world I was now headed into headfirst. I had heard about them in a small newspaper being passed around a few months ago, I listened as someone read the pages aloud and felt my mind wake up in righteous anger against the Spaniards who treat us without justice in our own land.
I walk as the town quickly fades into fields and the twilight edges darker and darker as torches and candles are lit in the nipa huts by the road. There are people walking with haste, eager, perhaps, to get home to their families where they will eat rice with salted fish, say their prayers, and sleep to get up the next day. Will there still be tomorrow? Will there be another tomorrow like today and all the days in the centuries past where the indio is condemned to be lesser, to be less than he can be, to be condemned to servitude and into the fires of hell for being a victim to the circumstances of his birth and the color of his skin and the language he speaks?
Children play in the rain with reckless abandon as the light and heat of the afternoon are banished by the creeping night. I walk on as the children are called back to their huts by their mothers. Further on, the men begin to walk back from the fields, sheathing their bolos and finding shade to light their sigarilyos at the end of a long day. I look in the distance and see the silhouette of Arayat disappear into the darkness. All the light that guides me is now the light of fires and candles and their reflections on the wet and muddy road still being pelted by rain from the heavens. The blood from the cut I gave myself has been washed away by the rain, leaving the scar from the initiation visible and the fresh-cut pale and pink after the blood had been washed. It didn’t matter anymore, I don’t think anyone is looking now, especially in this growing blanket of darkness.
I walk on northward. Northward until you find people who know the Old Lady Sora, my comrade had told me. It was dark now and nobody knew who or where the old lady is. I find a boulder by the path and perch myself on it, taking a small break and lifting my head to the heavens and catching the rain with my mouth. I feel my knees shake and I tell them that now is not the time to lose resolve. There is still a ways to go and still so far to walk to a place we only vaguely know. Down the road I spot a carabao walking with his master sitting atop the cart that the beast is pulling, the master beats the beast with a reed, urging the beast forward and directing him where he should go. I catch his eye as he passes by and he commands the beast to stop.
“Hijo, the night has caught you, what are you doing on the road?” he asks me
“I am going somewhere, senyor, do you happen to know where the Old Lady Sora lives?” I reply
“Not too far from here, hijo, what business do you have with the old lady?”
“I just need to be there tonight, senyor.”
“Hmm,” he raises his eyebrows at me as he eyes my presence up and down. He lights a fat roll of tobacco, “the church bells have already rung, the guardia civil are going to arrest anyone without the proper papers, you will spend the night in Bilibid if you are seen, hijo.”
“I know, senyor, that is why I must get to the house of the Old Lady, I must be there.”
He looks at me for a moment as the embers of his sigarilyo glow bright orange like a ripe tangerine. He chews on the other end and takes a deep breath.
“I know what you are, hijo, and I want no part of it. But the Virgin Mary will curse me and my family if I do not help a young man I see in need. Get on, there is room in the cart for you.”
“Many thanks, senyor, the Virgin bless you.”
“Thank me when we get there, hijo, I will not face the garrote for you or your comrades.”
I get on the cart and find myself sitting with empty baskets and sacks of rice as my fellow passengers. I say a prayer of thanks to San Cristobal for the kindness he has spared me. I close my eyes to rest and say another for the Blessed Virgin, who has afforded me the charity of this man. I hear the crack of the reed and the carabao begins to walk forward and the cart rattles with the bumps of the road. I sit myself up against the side of the cart and attempt to calm my heart, closer and closer to the heart of Kalookan, my fate becomes irretrievably changed.
“Why do you charge into your death, hijo? The night has come and they will catch you or shoot you, whatever makes them happier.”
I look at the man and stay quiet. If the guardia knew, if the Cuerpo knew everything that needed to be known, then there was no point in fighting our fates, we would be slaughtered like animals. I bite my lip and take a deep breath. I close my eyes hard and let out a sigh. As the darkness crept into the world around me, doubt has begun to seize my resolve. A warm breeze from the west blows at us and the man hands me a thin sigarilyo.
“It will calm your nerves, hijo, I’ve seen that look before.”
He hands me matches and I light the thin, tightly rolled tobacco leaves and taste the strong smoke its earthy flavor. I look out the cart and see the disparate nipa huts lit by fire and candles until they fade into the horizon. If all things happen the way they are being pushed now, these fields will become battlefields strewn with bodies of indio and Spaniard alike. Worse, the Spaniards will take the Ilocanos and Bikolanos and Bisayas from around these Islands to fight their own brothers and the Spaniards will not need to get their hands dirty. I let the smoke burn my tongue for a moment before letting it loose into the wind.
“It is an honor to die for this country, senyor.”
“Enough sons of the country have died fighting the Spaniards, we are simply too weak, too feeble, and too broken to fight them.”
“We have become one now, senyor, this time it will be different.”
He does not respond.
“How did you know, senyor? Do you know of the gathering?” I continue.
“It is where my eldest has run off to. He is there now with your brothers, running off to their deaths, to hell, to have their names stricken off by San Pedro,” he replies.
He does a sign of the cross, holding the roll of tobacco with his lips, and clutches his agimat that bulges through his thin camisa.
“You are our brother too, senyor. We fight for all our brothers in these Islands.”
“I am not one of you. I want none of your trouble and I only wish that my son had seen my sense and stayed with his mother. I pray you will see my sense, hijo, enough have died.”
“And more will die if we don’t, senyor.”
“And if you lose, hijo, you will bring unspeakable suffering to the indios you claim to fight for.”
The cart hits a rock on the path and I feel the thought of dying and losing sobering. I had been so drunk on the idea of victory that the thought of losing had never occurred to me. I tap the ash of the sigarilyo and bring it back up to my mouth, taking another mouthful. I feel the hit of the tobacco and finish it quickly, letting the smoke burn my tongue for the speed I smoked it. As I threw what remained of the sigarilyo, I feel the dizziness and the growl of my stomach. I had failed to realize how hungry I was.
“They will never listen to us, senyor, the sons of the country have gone straight to Madrid and no one would listen to them. They were too short, too brown, and too poor to be listened to, they could paint the greatest pictures or write the greatest books, but nothing will change the way they think, they see you and me as rats, and if they can exile the great Rizal, what will they do to us little folk, us poor folk.”
“This country has seen too much blood and we want none of it. The people you claim to fight for want none of it.”
“Nothing will change unless it is their blood that has been spilled to water these fields.”
“Do you think you can take on the walls of Intramuros? On their guns and cannons? Hijo, all you had with you was a bamboo pole when I saw you! Do your brothers have special agimats that can make you invisible? Bulletproof? Blade-proof? What witchcraft have you summoned to make a victory against them possible?”
I bit my tongue, I had no response. It was true. I have no knowledge of guns. All my balangay could muster were the bolos we used for the fields and bamboo spears we could make in a few minutes. We had no guns or powder or bullets. With the Cuerpo everywhere, who knows what they know, perhaps my suspicions were right, that they knew, and they were going to slaughter us.
I feel a bead of sweat making its way down my forehead, it was cold and the wet of the rain soaking my camisa clung heavily on my chest. The glow of the waning quarter moon began to shine on the fields as the storm clouds faded. It had risen considerably from the horizon, it must have been two hours since I had escaped the guardia in Quiapo, one since the church bells rang, and who knows how many more to Kalookan . It was silent for a while with the groans of the carabao and the creak and wheels of the cart perforating the silence that had enveloped us.
“What is your name, senyor?” I say, breaking the silence.
“Saturnino, and yours, hijo?”
“Mariano, Mariano de la - ”
“No, don’t tell me. If you decide to go where you say you are going, then the guardias cannot find your family if nobody knows your full name.”
“Why are you so cautious, old man?”
“I saw the priests killed, hijo. I saw the gunpowder flare from Cavite across the bay and I saw the priests killed. Those priests fought for the eternal soul of the indio and none of it mattered to any of them. There has been enough.”
“And yet you bring me to the house where the Katipunan gathers in the dead of night.”
“Yes, I am doing that. For charity and the Blessed Virgin, the sin is not on my head if you willingly walk to your death.”
“There are greater sins, senyor.”
“I have lived long enough to know that all sins are the same, it is what we must suffer for the wretched of this earth.”
“Do we not have a say in how much we suffer? I see you are a farmer, can you imagine if you no longer have to give the Crown’s share? Or if you can finally own your land?”
“I no longer entertain myself on such fantasies, hijo. This is the hand we were dealt with, it is what we must live with.”
“But we can change that hand, senyor, our suffering does not need to be permanent. We can fight for what is good or die trying.”
He makes no reply and gives his attention to the sigarilyo for a while, leaving the two of us in the silence perforated by the creaking of the cart and the moans of the beast. I watch the world pass by as an endless field. I can hear the sighs of the old man mixed in with indecipherable grumbling.
The cart stops.
“This is where I leave you, Mariano, and bless your soul. Bless all your souls. May your deaths come swiftly and may the Lord have mercy on you.”
I can feel the cold of the camisa seeping into my body. No. It is more than the cold from the wetness of the fabric, it is a cold that is seeping into my bones, into my soul. My shaking is not from the cold, it is a trembling in my soul, and indecision and fear and terror of all the terrible things that will happen to me and to this country if we lose. After all, was there a chance of winning? To breach the thick walls of the city? Did we have the guns, the men, the agimats, and all sorts of witchery to save us? I sit unmoving on the cart and I sense that Saturnino can feel my hesitation. He turns back to look at me and a catch a glimpse of his tired face against the darkness.
“It is not a sin to want to save yourself, Mariano,” he says.
“I am afraid. I feel that it is all for nothing and I want to run, but I feel that it is also a sin to abandon my brothers.”
“You cannot save them when the battles begin.”
“No, but I can die with them, if my death means another will live, then I should be there.”
“And yet you run.”
“I have not yet run.”
“But we cannot stay here all night, Mariano. Go forth to your death or hide and save yourself, but we cannot stay here.”
A breeze blows in from the west. The wetness of the rain still pouring far away invades my nose but the warmth of the world has returned even in the light drizzle of wherever I am now. I step off the cart and back into the mud of the world. Taking a deep breath I step towards Saturnino.
“Many thanks, senyor.”
“Do not thank me, I may as well have brought you closer to your death.”
“You will live to see this country free, Saturnino, your son will give you victory.”
His face turns into scorn and for a moment I fear that he will hit me with the reed he has been using to beat the beast. His scorn breaks and he looks down at the ground - his anger breaking into sadness. He reaches back and begins untying something from his neck.
“This is the Santissima Trinidad, find my son and give it to him, please. His name is Esteban Chavez and he will know when he sees it that he is forgiven. There is no swaying the lot of you so I may as well give him some peace of mind when his time comes.”
He drops the agimat into my hands and I tie it around my own neck.
“I will give it to your son, senyor, I promise you this.”
“Go straight this path and take the third left. You will know when you are there.”
“Thank you again, senyor.”
He looks at me for a moment and turns away, directing the beast away from my direction. He begins to take his journey away from all the coming trouble. I stand for a moment and watch him go away as the sound of the cart grows softer and softer. I was alone once again.
The cacophony of crickets fills my ears. The rain has awoken them. Joining their symphonies are the croaks of the frogs and the distant crowing of chicken and the howls of the dogs. I trudge on forward, armed with a bamboo pole I realize that I’ve passed the point of no return. I could have turned back in Quiapo, gone back to my parents, and gave them a hug - I only needed to face the wrath of my father for having broken the jugs. Or they might not have broken at all. I could have gone with Saturnino to wherever he lived and stayed for the night. But I didn’t. Here was I, charging into the unknown - into the darkness of the night in hopes of a bright and new morning.
The wind rustles the leaves of the trees lining the path. The waning quarter moon shines with the might it is given and dimly illuminates the world around me. Saturnino is right, these fields will be bloody in the coming struggle, but there is no life in staying under the thumb of those that rule over us. It was a risk worth taking, there was no life living as we had.
Further on down the path, a figure emerges from the dark of the trees and I feel my heart stop. The pale blue of his sleeves was instantly recognizable. My fears had been right. They knew and it was over. Except it didn’t have to be. Taking a deep breath, I walk briskly and quietly, avoiding the silver light of the moon. I grip the bamboo pole tightly, wishing that it was sharp or bladed like a spear or a bolo. The closer I got to the guardia, my heartbeat quickened and thumped harder. It beat so hard that I felt afraid that he would hear the thumping of my chest and end its beating by running my heart through with his bolo. I continue walking and tell my mind to quiet, to calm down, that if we were earnest about doing what we need to do, then this is what was needed to be done - and it has to be done with no hesitation.
The figure stops for a moment and turns his sleeves up. He lowers his pants to take a piss and I run as quickly and as quietly over to him, swinging the bamboo pole to his head with all the strength I could muster. It hits the back of his head with a sickening thump and he is brought to his knees, fumbling for the bolo on his side. I hit him again, swinging down before he got back up. He turns to lie on his back with his bolo in hand, ready to defend against my bamboo pole. I raise the pole to strike a third time but move back to avoid the swing of the blade. He uses the opportunity to get back up and we watch each other through the perforated darkness, waiting to see who will strike first.
I move and find myself drenched in the pale light of the moon.
“Drop your weapon and no more harm will come to you,” he says in the darkness.
“I know what you are, you traitor to the race. I am not so naive to believe you. Tell me what you know, what all of you know.”
“I know nothing of what you speak of, brother,” he tells me in reply.
“Do not act ignorant, what do you know of the Katipunan?”
At the mention of the Katipunan, he begins to move closer towards me. I grip the pole tighter and begin whispering the Hail Mary. It was over. This was it. If my sacrifices ensure the safety of the Katipunan, then let it be so. He moves closer and I swing the pole at his head with all the strength I could muster only for it to break at the blade of his bolo. I finish one last Hail Mary and close my eyes in surrender to death. His bolo swings back over to me and I fall back to the wet dirt.
I close my eyes and wait for the inevitable. I wait for the coldness of a blade, the piercing of flesh, and the dying of the light. I wait for a moment that feels like an eternity. Was I in purgatory already? Did the soul move that quickly? Could I appear as an apparition to my parents to let them know I have died? Instead, I open my eyes to see the arms of the guardia outstretched towards me, guiding me up.
“Spare me none of your mercy and get it over with, or do you wish for me to die on my knees like a slave, perhaps standing so you could say you are good and noble and killed a man with his dignity?”
He sighs and takes my hand. For a moment, I felt as though my spirit has left my body. He gives me a handshake and from the broken darkness, he shows the scar on his left forearm. He was one of us.
“You are late, brothers,” a voice says from the shadows.
The guardia turns as I get up from the dirt. My head buzzed hard and harmonized with the incessant noise of the crickets and their symphony. We both walk over to the voice in the shadows. The guardia shakes his hand and I follow suit.
“Forgive me, brother,” I say to the guardia.
“It was foolish of me to continue wearing the uniform going to where I was going, please, the fault is mine.”
We follow the man as he guides us through the bushes and trees. We come to a clearing where a bonfire illuminates a multitude of men. Their whispers vanish with the blowing of the wind. The fire illuminates the faces of men. They were gaunt, angry, impatient, agitated, and, others still, determined. We come over to a tree where a man leans. Our guide walks over and shakes his hand and the two of us follow, letting him know that we are with them.
“What is happening?” yet my question falls on deaf ears as a silence drapes over the camp like a thick, suffocating blanket. A man comes out of a nipa hut along with a few others at the center of the gathering.
“What are they saying? What has been decided?” I ask.
“Take out your cedula, brother,” the man on the tree says.
The figure at the center raises a small rectangle of paper and proceeds to rip it to shreds. It must be the Supremo. It has begun, it has all begun, the moment I rip this cedula to shreds there is no going back. The shouting is louder as the sound of paper tearing rips through the quiet of midnight. I raise my cedula, the paper which enslaved me to the Crown. We are no longer indios, we are now Tagalogs, the true owners of these Islands, and every man will be a King. I can hear it clearly now, I can hear every man here committing their lives to the cause. There will never be a day like today and there will be no more days like all the yesterdays of the past. I throw the shredded pieces of paper to the ground and raise my fists, joining the cries of the most noble sons of the country.
“Mabuhay! Mabuhay! Viva la Independencia! Viva la Revolucion! Mabuhay ang Haring Bayang Katagalugan! Viva! Viva!”