“What is a city without enchantment?” asks Dr. Mary Jane Guazon-Uy in “The Book of Pedro Bautista” recently launched by Ateneo de Naga.
This novelist happens to be an untypical physician who heals with science while consorting with magical realists like Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and Jorge Luis Borges. She credits Neil Gaiman for showing her how to tap a profound tale inside her to tell itself.
And so, she begins her novella with Maestra Angge and her unusual gift. This highly educated woman holding her own alone in 19th century Naga was a “throwback to ancient times when women ruled Kabikolan (in) equal freedom with men.”
Before the Spaniards came, she would have been called a babaylan ouright. No one who knew believed the friars slandering born healers like her as “aswang” feeding on human entrails. The Maestra Angge they knew diagnosed their ailments with sure instinct, healing them with herbs and a few choice words of advice. “Teacher,” they called her for the many medical books she was also reading.
Maestra Angge had an only child, Anita, whose father sailed off years ago and never returned. One day she sees her mother bring home a very sick man writhing in pain from a disease defying the Maestra’s diagnosis. The moment feels like doomsday as hard rain starts to fall, immobilizing the kalesa she ordered to fetch a priest to administer the last sacraments just in case.
As the patient’s body undulates with a giant creature in his innards, Anita sees her mother’s hands trembling while pounding herbs. The patient drinks her powerful potion and soon enough vomits foul-smelling mucus like a human womb with a dead baby. Neither had the Maestra ever seen that worm that wriggled out of sick man’s mouth.
This is a monster and it hisses, hurling itself at the Maestra’s Agta assistant Venancio who slashes it in half. Just as quickly, the Maestra stabs one end with her surgical knife. Venancio pours holy water on now two “demon worms,” which hurl themselves out the window. But they’re swallowed in whirlpools of floodwater and the storm dies down.
Revelation comes the next morning as the man recovering from near death opens and reads the ancient prayer book Anita found where he dropped it the night before. He begins to tell her of his desperation—he could not die until he returned this mysterious book he stole three centuries ago.
Its owner is none other than the Spanish missionary Pedro Bautista, a master musician and charismatic preacher who led the Franciscans to in 16th century Philippines. The man tells Anita he’s been seeking a cure for the curse the book laid on him all these hundreds of years—if it took killing the owner.
And so, he followed Bautista’s trail from his prayer cave in San Francisco del Monte in Manila, one of the many parishes he founded and the healing hot springs he came upon in the province of Laguna, following him all the way to her native Bicol. But always the man misses the monk and must follow him farther north. The Spanish governor general just sent Fray Bautista as ambassador of peace to Japan whose reigning shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi was casting a conqueror’s eye on gold-rich Philippines.
Respectful but firm, Fray Bautista wins the tolerance of the temperamental Shogun, who grants him a place to found a Christian community “to live in love.” He builds schools and a hospital and the people do indeed live in love. But next he meets martyrdom as court intrigues and jealous Shinto and Buddhist priests poison the Shogun’s mind about the growing following of this Spanish monk from an imperial power.
The story of his martyrdom may all sound like magical realism, but Dr. Uy says she hewed to accounts by witnesses to Fray Bautista celebrating Mass in several places after he was lanced to death on a cross with 25 other Christians. Ships at sea attested to seeing lights shining on that hill at the moment of execution.
The folk remembered carrion crows avoiding the dead flesh of all 26 bodies that remained incorrupt after two months exposed to the elements. Church tradition says believers cut up all the bodies and crosses as miraculous relics, erasing all traces that they were ever on that hill.
As fate and the author would have it, the book thief arrives just after Fray Bautista’s martyrdom. He hears all the stories but remains unmoved. He even kills the messenger Bautista sent him just before he died, to tell him he knew who stole his book, warning that it would torment him until he made amends, no matter how long it took.
Indeed, the thief continues to suffer all manner of ailments, often at the brink of death. Weary of his growing legend in Japan as a man who could not die, he returns to his life at sea. This is how he finds his way to Naga where Maestra Angge found him half-dead that ominous twilight.
Now comes the strangest twist. As inquisitive Anita continues asking questions on who and what he was, the thief slowly begins to feel like she was the daughter he never had. He has a name now, Rafael—Señor Paeng, the Agta servants call him.
Something strange begins to happen to Maestra Angge, too. As her patient recovers his health, he begins to help her manage the household, a charming man who sings and plays a piano like a dream. Maestra Angge, who’s frostily kept her many suitors at bay for years, suddenly takes to the kitchen, creating delicious dishes to dine on with Anita and Señor Paeng.
She sings in the garden, begins to consult him on her business enterprise, lets him make fun of her tone-deaf efforts to sing like him. The lady’s in love and so’s the gentleman with a dark past who’s unexplainably losing the years in his face.
They’ve become a loving family despite Señor Paeng’s frequent hints on how he would have to leave them one day. Anita and her mother choose to ignore that for one gloriously happy year.
And then the heavy rains come again and Señor Paeng mysteriously begins to bleed profusely. Venancio’s wife suffers a still birth. The household is unhinged as the Agta servants leave for Mt. Isarog to seek protection from their ancestral spirits from this explosion of “evil lowland spirits.”
Anita is the most vulnerable. Coming home late from school at twilight, she glimpses Señor Paeng and chases after him—only to find it’s really a devil. He strangles her with long claws and she’s close to her last breath when he suddenly lets her go, vanishing down an alley. Running home trembling, Anita shows her mother and Señor Paeng the wounds on her neck. The dreaded moment has come. Señor Paeng must leave the family he loves to spare them from sharing his fate, leaving them in deep sorrow.
Years pass. Two more invaders come and go. Anita grows with her recovering city, studies abroad, returns to help her aging mother and gradually takes over both her business and healing mission. Señor Paeng sends thoughtful presents through the years. When Maestra Angge dies and Anita buries her like an expectant bride, Señor Paeng sends a handsome wreath from out of nowhere.
More years pass. Anita is an aging married woman when a formally dressed emissary arrives to tell that her that his client has chosen her as his heir. His curiosity about her relationship with the “young” Señor Paeng he saw on his death bed is written all over his face.
But Anita says nothing as she receives the last present from the only father she ever knew — the title to a home in Naga and whatever remains after his generous donations to the Church and many charities.
As the repository of Señor Paeng’s mysterious past and equally strange death and burial at sea as a young man, Anita is deeply happy that he has finally earned his rest after hundreds of years. Only she could understand the beauty of dying request for her prayers until they met again.
But the strangeness does not end there. In Naga’s Holy Week procession that year, she glimpses a Franciscan monk carrying a heavy book, his left ear freshly cut—just like Pedro Bautista before his martyrdom. He greets her briefly but disappears in the crowd.
Now she remembers. She glimpsed him, too, at her mother’s funeral and again, when a messenger brought Señor Paeng’s present of eye glasses just when her eyesight was weakening. She begins to suspect he was in that religious procession, too, that was passing as she nearly breathed her last in the devil’s grip.
“Few Filipinos know San Pedro Bautista, a saint who once walked our land, I just had to bring him back to life in fiction,” reflects the storytelling physician by day, novelist by night.
Tell me that’s not magical realism at its best.
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