Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Silang

A contingent of armed men escorts her back to her cell. She is tightly bound, reeking of gunpowder and death, her bloodied limbs protesting with each step. A part of her wants to be angry. She must be angry, after suffering heavy losses in the battle in Vigan, after being betrayed—again—by the very people she wishes to redeem in the hills of Abra; after being made to witness the flogging and execution of her men; there is no other rational response but anger. When all else fails, fury has proven to be the most loyal of companions and the most useful of tools. It motivates her to think, to fight, to find a way out. But right now, she feels nothing but an exhausted sort of grief, the kind that settles deep into the bones, as if she has carried the weight of loss for decades.

A guardia shoves her inside,then slams the cell door shut. For a few moments, she does nothing but wallow in sorrow as she watches her men dangle from thick ropes outside a small window. A haunting melody—so light, so familiar that she wonders if she has gone mad—interrupts themonotonous silence. She realizes belatedly that someone outside is singing a kundiman, in one of the dialects of the herejes.

“Seg-angyangkhay nan wad-ay.” Pity is all that is left. “Nar-oscha’t am-in.” All of them have faded away.

It is a waft of cigar smoke, cloyingly sweet, that first alerts her to his presence.

Misalvajehermosa. You are my daughter now. Your papa, he has nothing else to give but you. Turn around. Show me what I have purchased.”

“You are dead.” She looks down and sees a shimmer of cloth that should not be there over her bound arms. “You are dead” she repeats even though she can feel the burn of his gaze on her back, and the weight of his long shadow.

“Your papa, he is too kind to you. He dresses you in piña, showers you in baratija, pays to turn you Christian in word and in deed. But we all know that no amount of cloth and trinkets and prayer can change what you really are. Turn around, and show me what you are inside, mi salvajehermosa.

She closes her eyes and suddenly, he is much closer. She tries not to tremble, as phantom fingers trail a path from her ear to her collarbone.

“Ah, mi salvajehermosa. I forbid you to learn the language of herejes. Now, turn around. Show me your remorse.”

The painful crack of a whip resounds within the prison walls. “You are not here,” she says again, trying to hold on the certainty that he is gone. Another snap and she recoils.

“Turn around—” he whispers, running his hand through her hair.

Misalvajehermosa—” he says from far behind her.

“Show me—” he says as he scours her skin with his fingernails.

“You are mine—” he shouts from the left as he snaps his wrist letting the whip slash the wall.

The memories cloud and blur with one another, as he assaults her with his voice, his hands, the long reach of his whip. And through it all, the kundiman keeps her tethered to the present.

 “Nar-oscha’t am-in.” All of them have faded away.

The song ends, and she finally opens her eyes. Outside the window she can still see them clearly—all of her men who were loyal to her and to the cause—swaying against the wind. She can still hear the echoes of the kundiman in her mind, the ebb and flow of the notes like a lullaby. She can almost taste the salt in the breeze.

“Take off your clothes, mi salvajehermosa. The reason you have given no longer applies. Let us celebrate our wedding night. Turn around. Show me your tainted flesh.”

She looks down and sees that the shimmer of cloth is gone, allowing her to see her wounds and bruises more clearly. In her fingers, a ghostly cup materializes.

“I understand now,” she says, finally finding her voice. “I understand that God has given me a chance to atone for my sins. But I cannot help but be what I am. I cannot be redeemed by prayers and fists and phantoms.”

The Kastila, they will not understand—they will hear a song and think it only a song. They will hold a cup, and think it only a cup. They will see a woman, and think her only a woman. They believe defiance is caparisoned with weapons they can see. They do not understand how dangerous people become, when they are armed with the knowledge that there is nothing left to lose.

Slowly, she turns around.

He is every bit as terrifying as she remembers him. And old. His skin is mottled and sagging with age, his hair a thin, ashen halo over his head, his eyes bulging against his pale flesh.  The edges of his ghostly form are frayed, as if his fury has singed even his very shape in the afterlife.

“Miesposasalvaje, remember, always remember, you belong to me.”

She feels the rage within her building, fueled by fear and frustration, strengthened by loss.She takes a step forward and another, and another until she is standing right in front of him. She offers him the cup.

“Miesposasalvaje, I am glad that you have learned obedience,” he says as he takes her offering. “Someday, you will be worthy of me.”

“I will mourn for you, mi esposo. I will wear black and our casa will be draped in the colors of the dead to honor your passing,” she says, repeating the words she said all those years ago. “They will believe me when I say how much I loved you.  They will cry with me when I weep.”

He drops the cup. It disappears before it reaches the ground.

“What have you done to me?” He clutches at his throat.

“I have shown you what I am.”

His screams echo in the walls, but none of the guardia come to investigate. Instead, she is left alone to watch her husband heave and retch and try to scratch his eyes out. Unlike before, she does not turn away.

[separator type=”dashed”]ON HER THIRD night in prison, the alcalde invited her to dinner. She was cleaned, her injuries treated, her hair combed, because the Kastila did not have the stomach to look at dying things. It was in the middle of the third course—a fragrant pinakbet that, despite herself, she ate heartily—that the alcalde jovially stated that she would be executed the next day, at the plaza.

When she was returned to her cell—still smelling like flowers—she carried with her the sentence of death.

“Perhaps the letters were written by someone you already know. Perhaps he has already revealed himself to you. Perhaps, he is standing in front of you right now.”

“Diego?”

She turned around at the sound of his voice. She sees him leaning on an unseen door, looking as he did all those years ago, when he revealed his courtship. He was so young then. So was she.

The mirage fades. He reappears in a corner, offering flowers to the shadows.

“I do not want your wealth. I want to be your partner, your companion; the person who will fight your battles with you. And you are the person I want to fight my battles with.” He is looking up, as if he is talking to someone from a high window. “Biagko, will you let me stay by your side?”

“Yes, Diego, yes!” She rushes toward him, but when she tries to turn him to face her, her hand grasps nothing. He disappears.

“Children are blessings—but they are not our happiness. We have each other—that is more than enough. Biagko, do you not see how full my heart is, with you in my embrace?” He is in the opposite corner now, his profile partially illuminated by moonlight from the window. He leans closer to a phantom she cannot see and kisses it. “You are mine, and I am yours. That is all we will ever need.”

“Diego, I am here.” She tries again to make him face her, but he only dissipates at her touch. “Diego. Stop taunting me.”

He swirls in and out, always just beyond her grasp, laughing in the darkness, whispering poetry to thin air, his face always from her, and still she tries to grab hold of each of his manifestations. And each time, she fails.

She is standing still in the center, just trying to inhale his scent and memorize his voice, when he appears facing the cell door. His hands are behind his back, his shoulders tense, the line of his jaw rigid.

“We have to defend them. We have to save them. The abuses of the cura and the alcalde, they are too much. Can you not see that this is against the teachings of Christianity?”

“I thought we were enough.” She remembers this moment. She remembers how he had seemed so far away from her, even though they were just a few steps apart. She remembers sitting on a bench and arguing with him. She remembers the feeling of trying to keep sand from escaping her hands.

“Years ago, I convinced myself I could never sympathize with the herejes. They are vicious; they do not have the moral compass that is the gift of our religion.” He walks away, through the metal bars, and she feels the distance between them more painfully than any real injury. “And yet, the cruelty of the savages seems more honest somehow. It lacks malice, unlike the atrocities committed by the cura and the alcalde to the kailanes, in the name of God.”

“Is this it, then? You have come to punish me for not doing enough? For not embracing your faith? For failing?” She drops to her knees. “Tell me, Diego. What would you have had me do? What else do you want from me?”

And he is suddenly in front of her, cupping her hands with his. He seems so real, she can almost convince herself that she can hear his heartbeat. “Fight with me, Biagko. Take arms with me. We can make a difference. Together. Tao nga di mabuteng, umulitinangato a daga.

She wants to say no. She wants say that they will lose everything if they fight this war. She wants to tell him how things will end in the slim possibility that it will change what has happened. But she does not have it in her to utter the words. Instead, she nods, just like she did all those months ago.

A sudden waft of wind brings the stench of rotting bodies into her cell. The sound of carousing—the guardia, celebrating their victory—becomes unusually loud. He vanishes before her eyes, only to emerge in the far corner. Even in the dim light, she can see the blood from his chest.

“I am dead, Gabriela,” are his last spoken words.

She weeps.

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SHE IS WAITING for the guardia to open the doors. It will be her first taste of sunlight, after a week of captivity. Beyond the wall, she can hear the alcalde boasting about his triumphs. He claims that Vigan is safe from the hands of rebels. He claims that God has seen fit to punish the demon woman. He claims that the Kastila will always be there to protect the people from the savages. The crowd claps their hands, just as the doors finally open. She braces herself for the scorn and anger that will be directed at her, from the same people who cheered her husband just the previous year.

When she is finally led outside, the light momentarily blinds her.

“I will respect what my nephew wanted. But I beg of you, Generala, step down. War is no place for a woman. My nephew might have believed differently, but I do not see how someone who has never killed a man could ever lead an army.”

She blinks several times, before she sees him. He is standing with his arms crossed across his chest, the lines on his face prominent as he scowls at her, just ahead of her escorts. Unbidden, the memory of her response and his incredulous expression floats up, and she almost smiles. She walks past him.

“Generala, I do not see how attacking the coastal towns at night can hurt the Kastila, but I cannot deny that these small battles are battles we can win. I will issue implement your plan, but even you, Generala, must know that these will not be enough to win us the war.”

He is standing behind a guardia, his voice stern but respectful. She remembers sitting by the window, holding a fan, as he argued to take on bigger battles, to take on more risks. And she also remembers how he had increasingly deferred to her decisions. She was so sure of herself then; she was so convinced that the sum of their tiny victories could win them the war.

She stops in a small clearing, in front of the cura. A guardia forces her to kneel.

“Deus, qui propriumestmisereri semper et parcere, tesupplicesexoramus pro animafamulaetuae,” the cura says, halfheartedly entreating the heavens to spare her soul, even as the ghost appears just behind him.

“Listen to reason. For us to recruit the kailanes is one thing—after all, they share our faith. But for us to recruit the Tinguans when they have refused to recognize our God—that is another matter. My nephew had named Jesus de Nazaret as Capitan-Heneral of the armies he had amassed and you inherited. This very act precludes us using these savages.”

“We are fighting for freedom,” she says, repeating the very words she had uttered just a few months ago.

The cura stops, surprised she had the gall to interrupt the prayer. He frowns at her but continues with the ritual. It is her ghost who replies.

“Generala, we are fighting for God.” The ghost leans on a nonexistent table. “First, and foremost.”

She bows her head, and whispers her truth. “No. We fight for freedom. First and always.”

The cura nods in approval, thinking her bowed head and whispered words are manifestations of her atonement. “—ut per haecpiaeplacationisofficia, perveniremereatur ad requiem sempiternam.”

When she raises her head, the ghost is gone. The prayer ends, and she is raised to her feet and brought closer to the platform, with the cura just ahead of her. She is stopped just before the steps.

“Algunasúltimaspalabras?” the cura asks, even as the ghost walks through him.

In the span of heartbeats, the ghost has grown older, his face deeply scarred, his eyes troubled.

“Generala, under your command, the guerrilla tactics against the Kastila have worked extremely well. The babaknangs we have ransomed have filled up our coffers. We are at our strongest, and yet, we still fight with bikal, sumpit, and wasay, while our enemies—every single one of them—are armed with muskets.”

Hija,” the cura says, speaking slowly and exaggerating his pronunciation. “Algunasúltimaspalabras?”

The ghost steps closer to her. “If we attack now, with our full strength, we will still most likely march to our deaths. As we speak, six thousand men are assembled in Vigan. Six thousand men, trained in the art of warfare, against our two thousand, who only know how to plant crops and navigate the seas.”

She stares straight ahead, seeing her men die all over again. She remembers every one of their faces. She remembers every one of their names.

“You do not have to go with us. You may leave, undetected. You can still be free,” the ghost says.

“Do you have any last words?” the cura asks again.

She lifts her chin up, and looks at the ghost and then the priest straight in the eye. The cura steps back, the ghost disappears.

Without waiting for the guardia to escort her, she moves toward the platform, and calmly climbs up the steps.

As she steps on the barrel, and the noose is adjusted to her neck, she finally faces the people her husband wanted to save. To her surprise, she sees not scorn, not even pity, but admiration in their eyes. And something else. Something that is difficult to describe if she did not have the same look about her. To anyone else, it might seem like sadness. But to her, it looks like simmering fury.

“Generala.”

She looks toward the sound. It might just be a trick of light, but just beyond the crowd, she can see a line of people standing at attention, their right hands lifted to their foreheads in salute.

“It is my honor to have served under you.”

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