When Santiago saw her in the mirror, comb in hand, he knew it was time for him. It was time to leave the hut. For it was the time of the crescent moon and if there were people he knew in the corner store, it was time for a cup.
Though his limbs were still numb, Santiago rose. He went to the basin with the fresh water and washed his face. His remaining life was measured the uniform in the trunk; the medal under his pillow; the kiss of his daughter on the cheek. The day was made for waiting, and the night, for wine. Nothing was missing.
When he looked at her once more, she had put on her beige skirt, a sheath.
“Are you going out?” he asked, as was his wont.
“Yes, father,” she replied automatically. There was a ribbon in her hair.
He went back to his cot near the window. The moon was out. The street shimmering below like a lake drifted evenly toward the mountains in the east while mad traffic droned into the dolorous hum of the beggars, kinsmen all, stretched in a column on the sidewalk, banging their pails, sleeping resignedly on the cold cement, yelling at God. From a distance, in a yard, the smell of rice fermenting in the earthen jars oozed from the depths of the earth. Earlier, the sun had aged it into essence wand at the rising of the moon, the wind carried it, sweet, sourish, the dead aroma of beans—the wine of the rice that the shriveled people on the sidewalk, drunk with its flavor, inhaled and swallowed greedily in their slumber.
Now Santiago leaned on the wall, trying not to look at her, trying not to ask her again.
“Where are you going after the piano lesson, Elena?” he asked.
“To my mother’s grave,” she said.
He turned to the moon, and sighed. In the old days, they had attended the misa de gallo under the sweet dama de noche, the scent sending them frolicking to the church in the barrio where already gathered the last flirtations of the fiesta. It was their own Binondo, though their prayers pleaded crosswise to the altar and to all the womenfolk that ever swayed in their camisa. “How is the pupil doing in his lessons?”
“Father, he is only seven. He cannot even put sugar in his milk.”
“That is a strange child—learning to play the piano at night.”
“He plays in the sun all morning.”
“What are they raising now?”
She took out a tube of lipstick and began to work on her lips.
“They are quiet tonight,” she said, indicating the window where outside lay the world.
“If they are quiet, they are dead.”
She was now pulling out her hair-pins.
“Is it not time for the corner store? I pressed your other baro this afternoon.”
“In a moment,” hija.
“Perhaps De Palma will sing again,” she said cheerfully.
“It is a truth. He sings every night. There he will come, coughing, epileptic, climbing out of a tit, holding sampaguitas he has not sold, a guitar slung across his shoulder as though it were a hump on his back-a birthright. The songs he sings are straight out of the kaingin, like arrows from the vows of our beloved. Nobody understands us, we two. We are the irredeemable fragments of the veranda. Reuniting on the pass, swimming in the ravine where the star apples fell from the siege and where only memory can hurt us. Sing, De Palma, old goat! There is new grass in every song.”
“Is he still in good voice?”
“Crackling, but still there.”
“And still ill.”
“Ill? The man is dying, even as I am. Do you now know? He was the lamplighter of the Old Manila and he still cannot believe the new city has no more need of him.”
“Poor old De Palma. Poor old warrior…”
Santiago wiped his forehead with the back of his arm.
“And Ruben?” This, her back to him.
“Ah, that one. He is a sponge. What are you doing to him, daughter? He works hard in the daytime and has school in the evening, but he comes to the corner store and reminisces with us. What has happened between you two?”
She stood up from the mirror.
“I have my pride,” she snapped, combing her hair.
“Of course. That is what Ruben is trying to reach at the bottom of the cup. But I suppose the well runs deep.”
She turned to him, eyes flashing.
“It is my life, Father.”
She made ready to leave, her things neatly arranged on the rattan table as they had been every night for a year now. On her ears, hung her only pair of earrings, ornaments of blue, none the less bluer than her way with them, for she wore everything elegantly, even the cheap leather belt, the high-heeled shoes, the purse she had bought in a fire sale. Once more arrayed for her evening she loomed before him, erect, radiant, a product from the solicitude of the cracked mirror in the room-a studied jewel cast in nerve and mulatto. As Santiago studied her, wondering where the year had deposited itself, he realized that she was altered. When she spoke, she was not as passive as she had been before her change of clothes.
“Tell De Palma to sing a little louder that I may hear him, where I will be.”
Santiago grimaced. “Do not worry. The wine will do that.”
“The wine is a good guitar. Better than that wood he strums on.”
“The wine understands.”
“Yes. Well, I have to go.”
“And is this why Ruben is so sad?”
“Please. Let us not speak of him. He is just a boy.”
“He is drinking himself old before he is twenty.”
“That is not my doing.”
“How brave we all are.”
“The wine is braver. Go to it, Father. I am no comfort to you.”
She lingered by his side, fidgeting, uncertain.
“Fetch your mother’s umbrella.” He commanded. “It might rain tonight.”
“Yes. It always rains at night.”
“I will light a candle while you are gone.” He said, going to the cabinet where she kept their things.
She unhooked the red umbrella from its post.
“Please. Don’t lose The Revolution tonight.”
Before he could answer, she had hurried down the stairway and he heard her footfalls on the gravel road. He settled back in the cot, listening to the injury of rice on the pavements, thinking of wine.
De Palma was deep in his cups when Santiago, a medal conspicuous on his breast, arrived in the store. The old sampaguita vendor was heavy with drink and oratory, aging with every sip. He cut a ridiculous figure on the bamboo bench as he imposed upon his wine-mates a visage of whiskers and a rambling, ranting talk of another century. The minor drunkards avoided him passionately, this ragged creature who lavished the small change he earned from his garlands on a morose old veteran who received the wine and returned the wildness. Illustrious, dazzling in their era, the twin patricians maintained, among the stevedores, a stern, traditional front.
“How now, my courier of Malolos? Still compiling the evils of the 10,000 pieces of silver from the battle?” De Palma taunted.
Santiago sneered. “I see the vintage is on your tongue already.”
“Why not? It is my legacy.”
“Speak with caution then. I am not well disposed.”
“You have no spirit.”
“Leave that to the wine.”
“With edge, as always, my courier, my Malolos-lost to a congress in the bushes.”
Santiago took the tin cup Fermin the proprietor offered him, gulping down the liquid hungrily, feeling it warm the pit of his stomach. He exhaled and licked the drops on his lips.
“They do not make wine like they used to, in my home town.”
De Palma gurgled noisily. “They do not know how to age these days. These distilleries they are a crime.”
They sat there, (“los grandes”), the aficionados of the Lost Republic, both flaming in correcting history, fumbling, precise, rigid, restless, whole, divided: the furniture of the past.
“Remember how we used to read Carlyle?” sighed De Palma.
“Remember the Mayorca?” chorused Santiago.
“The mauser hidden in the mind?”
“The women of salt?”
De Palma sniffed, spanning his arms at the swelling sidewalk.
“Now watch the calamity spread like an epidemic over the rice terraces.”
Now Santiago saw the mothers and their children filling the sidewalk, swaying in rhythm, swinging their baskets in the dust, their moan, one call only: rice! It was the talk and terror of the town; a topic boiled and fried or taken raw with a grain of salt. And even at the wedding, nobody ever threw it any more.
Santiago saw the embankment bear the weight of the line stretching from the fire hydrant to the granary and he heard the pedestrians talk about The Bomb.
“There was no bomb in our time, eh, caballero?” he said to his friend.
The flower man smiled patiently.
“But there has always been a bomb, Santiago. There will always be a bomb.”
“Where is that Ruben?” Santiago protested, searching for an ally.
“You cannot change progress. That is the will of Our Father and the scientists.”
“Someday, I shall free the people.”
“Sit down. Caballero. Drink your wine and let it happen. The bomb will fall whatever you do. Ask the people there, living for their ganta. Ask the mothers. Ask the children. The Bomb is in their bellies. The Bomb is in their market. The Bomb is in the pawn shop.
“Yes! The Bomb is God Who will not come.”
“Have you abandoned the faith, too, Viejo?”
“I am two months younger than you,” complained De Palma.
“Do not change the subject, old man!”
“That is what we fought for!”
“The Man was what we fought for.”
“And is that not faith-was he not, is he not-religion?”
De Palma spat. “He whistles in the dark, incumbent in a hospital, mended by young doctors who exhaust their scholarships reviving the loneliness of the past. There he reigns in a wheelchair, waiting for the day, longing for the night. You and I, we have forfeited him. He is nothing but the weakness in my limbs and the whiteness of my hair.”
“And the failure. They embalm him there; The Promise, sheltered, shuttered, analyzed, anesthetized; a relic in a museum that has forsaken its heritage. This”-and he pointed to the line on the asphalt-“is our heritage. That is what we fought for in the mountains: a retailer’s bin that has squeezed the rice out of our land to bleed our people. Are you blind? Do you not see the hunger? Are you deaf? Do you not hear the thunder? And you sit there moaning about The Man whose blunder has led to this! Is this your grandeur?”
Santiago threw his cup away.
“Traitor!” he bellowed. “If The Man goes, every flower withers. Do you hear me, spawn of the sampaguita?”
De Palma glared at him.
“Man, why do we always quarrel?” boomed Santiago.
“Because that is all we have left, brother. We keep the dates accurate, the facts intact, though we destroy their meaning. The Man must suffer his “mistake over and over and over, lest he vanish from our affection. Build him again, Santiago. Build him again. I thirst for our day once more when you drank from the brook where his gray mare stood like a dragon as he surveyed the forest range and traced a vision of the enemy in every acacia. Build him for me, caballero. He is my life too. They do not know him there; no one will ever know. But we do, we, the last chips of the monument; we know him. And it is a knowledge that is my breath.”
A young man, lean and disheveled, suddenly clambered on the bamboo bench, scraping his shoes, flinging his books disdainfully on the dirty counter.
“You are late, Ruben,” Santiago greeted gladly, delighted at this intrusion in the debate.
Ruben motioned cryptically to the proprietor who immediately poured wine in a large glass and gave it to the new arrival. The glass was full to the brim.
“Yesterday,” the young man began hoarsely, “I presented my fraternity pin to Elena, and she would not accept it. I asked her why and she said she loved me like a brother.”
De Palma howled. Santiago colored.
“I just hate everybody,” Ruben said, sulking over his wine.
“Do you not love anyone?” Santiago asked irritably.
The young man guffawed.
“Look around you and see the inequality of love. Love your wife and she runs away with another man. Love your best friend and he was that other man. Love your industry and it bites you. Love your God and there is a flood.”
Bristling, Santiago wagged and imperious finger.
“Love your son, and he grows up.”
“Don’t feel like Job. The prophets deserted the Bible long ago.”
“Just because you are an underpaid clerk in the backroom of some terminal, does that give you the gall to dislocate the anatomy of this government?”
“The government?” Ruben hissed. “The government is a brat that cannot even feed the malnourished child outside the door. The government is blind when it cannot see the blind dying like flies in front of the Quiapo church. The government is lame when it cannot walk to the cripple on Avenida and lead him away. Not that I care for the masses, personally. But they must be removed from the wound.”
“But do you not see, Ruben, that the wound is you?”
“Poetry! Three hundred years of losing our corn to The West and we celebrate a man and his two novels written in Europe. You cannot liberate the slave with a metaphor! So dance the zarzuela; I will take my rice in a mug, not in the harvest!
“I do not know what you are talking about,” Santiago mocked. “But in my time, there was Spain, there was The Treaty, there was The Man. And that was enough. In my heart, there is a statue of him so tall only my love can reach it so soft only the guitar can speak to it. Por Dios young man of today, you with your present that has no future, only journalism, you are trampling on the last petal of the garden. You are adding to the water when you should be turning the sea into the bridge of the armada! Oh, country that never was, that was to me, my name, my sword, my armor, my pendant and my memory, I am surrounded by absence! By worship that has descended into a whore! By the voice, not of my harana, but of the jukebox! Adios…”
De Palma applauded.
Santiago ignored him and continued addressing the sullen young man.
“I look at you and I drown in Candaba; I look at you and I see a crack in the mirror ate Malolos where I held the reins of his horse and touched the tip of his saber. All this desecrated in your face forever, a face I would never have fought for had the gypsies told me it was such I was fighting for.”
Santiago whirled at the boy.
A toothless wheeze issued from the flower man.
“Another cup, patron,” he rasped.
Still, Santiago raved, and the bench rattled with his wrath.
“When they captured him in Palanan, it was though my own identity had stopped; reason stopped. There was no longer any island without The Man; without him, there was no longer anything, only turncoats who bartered their allegiances for a puff of occidental tobacco. We were not beaten; we were betrayed.”
“Arriba!” De Palma hooted.
Santiago was undaunted. “Nowadays, all you see is the tattoo in everybody’s eyes.”
Ruben, piqued, toasted his glass.
“That is in effigy of all the things that could have been-the synthesis of illusion.”
“Is that your poetry on the walls? The charcoals scrawling that say BEWARE OF MAN?”
“Put on your spectacles, old man. That’s nothing but a detour. The sign actually says BEWARE OF VICIOUS GOD.”
The proprietor flung up his hand helplessly. “This could go on forever,” he moaned.
“And it will!” snarled Santiago. “For such a race as you! For such a disgrace as you!”
The young man picked up his books.
“I think I’ll attend Political Science after all.”
But De Palma pulled him back.
“Stay,” he mumbled drunkenly. “I want to sing to you.”
Both of them studied Santiago contemptuously. Unable to stand the sting, De Palma sprang up, confronting his friend toe to toe. Retaliating fiercely, his words were clear and they did not pronounce the wine.
“The Bomb is in that house where you’re Elena-she that your shrunken hag of a wife. danced into life one summer-lies naked waiting for the possession of the world!”
“Hold your tongue, old man!” Santiago blurted.
“Naked in that tall house with a balcony, I tell you and I should have told you but you are stupid!”
Santiago slapped him across the mouth.
“My Elena teaches the son of a rich man to play the piano!”
“Your Elena teaches the song of lightning to play on her body!”
Santiago slapped him again. “You have no honor!”
“Ask the boy here why he drinks!” De Palma whined.
“I have my pride.” Ruben whispered.
“Ask the store here where she passes every night,” said De Palma. “Ask the beasts on the corner who whistled at her. It seems the earth knew the fragrance of your daughter before she ever touched the keys of a piano. She is no ivory, Santiago.” With this, purged and remorseful, the old sampaguita man fell back limply on the bench. Santiago was running now, and behind. De Palma was beginning to pluck on his guitar.
Santiago moved among the brief lives in the tenements, inspecting the other insects big enough to leave a mark on the gravel as they moaned their rice; moved among the flow in the garbage cans and among the ardors in the alleys releasing their anguish. He stumbled among the hollow men and women on their rags and newspapers, breathing an apology, swearing to lead them out of the famine.
He inched his way into the avenue picking up a trail through the city, boring a hole into the inlets shrieking its commerce in his cars. The pulse was beating as it had on the ever of The Battle when they heard the cannon as it blasted a tunnel through the lumber in the swamps and the bugles echoed and the horses neighed. He had blazed an escape route into the thicket, though he was only a courier, for his tender years had responded to the speeches a decade of reforms when he returned to rule.
Cannon and hood in his ear. Santiago wended his way street after street, looking for a tall house with an azolea where his daughter played the piano to a child not old enough to sweeten his milk. The darkness chilled his sight, weed caked about his ankles, the sweet chant of De Palma caressed him with hymns that always spoke of the mountains and the stars and the stream that guarded the plateau where their leader stood, dreaming on his mount, looking to the east while The West advanced with Arkansas farm boys who washed their cotton socks in the ponds of Bacolor.
In half an hour, as though peering into hedges rich with Americans, Santiago had thrust his head into swinging doors where purple lights beckoned and the eyelashes of hostesses flapped like miniature bat-wings, as though, as he stood there, they were asleep and were having nightmares about a man of the revolution, glistening with a medal. In this furiously in his chest, he collided into their figures, coiled and scented a weary old man upon whose face hung a tear. Seeing this, they would giggle, rock, shake their heads knowingly, disappear into their florid spaces-an island so terrible to behold the old man eluded it as if a bullet had nicked his temples. There was no way of knowing where the tall house with the azotea might be, and he wished they would play their lesson louder, Elena and the retarded boy, that he might hear everything was well. But there was no sound of music, only the wind with the message of doorways, women laughing, not believing, then calling to him, a customer, to come, break bread with them before the hour of twelve when perforce he must retire the bones of his body. Finally, exhausted, he rested on the pavement under an awning, gasping sweat and tears washing his medal. As he stroked his face, like a monastery, rising majestically out of a hill, the tallest three of all, a castle winking its neon in the north. Slowly, his mind dancing in the rice wine, his cheeks flushed, he bolted from his resting place, heading directly toward this eagle of a house that leaned on a passage of leave, a phantom, a windmill glowing ugly in the moon. When he knocked on the massive iron door, something like a thunder rumbled inside. No one answered. He knocked again. Still no one. Then he saw it, the balcony. Up there, in one of the rooms-for it was a big house-he felt the presence of people, heard a woman’s quick tread, a man’s thick voice, and what Santiago knew to be the crackling of a bed.
“Open this door!” he screamed.
Upstairs, someone lighted a cigarette.
Santiago gazed up, not so much at the window but at Whatever Man watched this spectacle from above. He leaped, caught hold of a vine, but his hand slipped and he felt the earth mothering his face. Rising, he leaped again, this time not even catching the vine, and slipping again.
He could not climb the balcony.
Looking around, he saw this house, which, a decade ago, was used as a chapel, was interlaced by a par. Fronting it was untended shrubbery with a stone bench. A fountain lay at the far right, facing the main street. A hero’s stoned monument held up its arms in salute of the dawn, though in the morning the sun normally rose on its back.
Santiago dragged himself to the bench, nursing his wounded fists. By now, the upstairs window had remained serene, untouched by his fury, a sinister chamber clinging to the silence of the city. Santiago looked up, seeing nothing but his pain, and he pushed himself down to the ground where he bit at pebble and scratched at rock and his loins ached and tore out at him in their own mute rebellion. The wine washed every part of him, every sense that could remember his story, stabbing at the coil of years curled like a snake in his throat. He was pounding on the earth with all his age, but not a sound came from him, for he was striking all the citizens now asleep in the city while he endured-ever loyal to the silence-the agony in the park.
He lay as he had lain in the green fields of the wild young country in the days of The Dream, looking into the eyes of The Man who told them about the coming of The Time. Lying in the sweet air, eating nothing but praise in the sudden doubling of a fist in the heart that now lived only in the memory of the loveliness, the bread was not stale, now the water salty…
(Aguinaldo!) Like the terrible strength of all beginnings, the wine of his dream dancing wildly in his eyes, now a dried old man, a wraith in a rocking chair, sick, convalescent, a trophy honored once a year, a patriarch of the tomb, alone with revolution, transfixed. in the twilight, a poet whose poetry rushed like pearls in the landscape.
Prostrate on the ground, twisting, writhing, he saw the moon, a circle in the heavens, repeating its aura, revering its own beauty, at random atmosphere: a destiny. Then a cloud, like a swift and ominous wing touched it and the cloud sparkled and the moon darkened and he who lay on his back struggled up and went to the door, hammering with, his knuckles at the silence.
The door opened. An old couple holding out a lamp, holding each other, questioned the dark daughter.
“What do you want?” asked the two.
Santiago’s lips quivered.
“I want a woman.”
The old man stared at his woman; held the lamp closer upon this shivering white man who would be a lover.
“Enter,” the old man said.
Santiago followed the lamp and when it illuminated the interior, he found that the house was indeed a castle and must have been the home a governor-general once bequeathed to his querida.
“Is this a harem?” Santiago snickered, though he shook so.
“Follow, old one,” the old man ordered harshly. The old woman had not spoken.
The couple and the lamp led Santiago into a maze of rooms, one dungeon succeeding another, each one unlocked ceremoniously by a key that swung from a chain the old woman encouraged to dangle by her side. As the old woman introduced the cave, the old woman opened them, exposing women and children of all ages undoing packages and bundles, some sleeping, others disrobing, many just staring vacantly, and Santiago asked where the others were, for he was told that there where the new ones, just off the interisland ships. The old man with the lamp studied his customer maliciously and began scratching his bald head.
“We don’t have your age right now, if you can wait…”
Santiago was going to answer when he tripped over some obstruction. “Pardon me.” He said sincerely, and then he saw them. They were all lying on what appeared to be a huge mat, each covered with a respective blankets; a tarpaulin here, a canvas there, a coat, even a towel. The women were strewn about like cattle.
“They are not prepared,” the old man explained politely. “But go ahead. Choose one.”
Santiago went around, lifting their covers, blinking in the oil lamp that followed, pulling out a leg, brushing aside a concealing arm, a love of hair. A woman with pimples bit his hand and Santiago withdrew, pale. Out of nowhere, the old woman who had hovered perfectly still by the doorway, lunged with the agility of a cat, and with what looked like an animal’s dried tail converted into a whip, struck the pimpled one twice in the face and thigh. A sob was stilled. The pimpled one cowered, covering herself with her end of the tarpaulin. The old woman, baring gold teeth in the lamp’s glow, smiled apologetically at Santiago.
“They get listless sometimes,” she said.
The guided tour was finished. The old woman restored his keys; the turnkey had done her duty.
The master of the manor now mentioned a roster and a price. Going over their names, Santiago noticed there were thirty in all.
“Are they all here?”
“All present and accounted for,” the old man announced, sweeping back a curtain with a flourish.
“Sorry, they are still resting. We didn’t expect business…the late hour. But since you are a rare case…”
Santiago smiled happily. “Then I must be-“
“There that one upstairs,” the old woman said naughtily, bating at a strand of her whip. “Special.”
The wine stirred in Santiago. And without speaking, seeing the stairway, he ran up quietly, the old man stepping lightly behind him.
“If you can wait,” he was saying.
But Santiago did not hear him. There, outside the middle door by a landing, stood a piano, a weird box with a mantle; and leaning on one of its legs, was a red umbrella. Santiago snatched it, and running downstairs, fell on top of the woman with the whip, sending her careening to the floor. Santiago slipped out of the curtain, ran out of the caves, still unlocked, fled out of the castle, chased by the couple; the old woman temporarily halted, lashing out blindly with her whip. And into the night Santiago fled, carrying a heart and its beating and a red umbrella clasped to his chest.
Half of the candle had melted when she returned. She was shivering, breathless.
“Was there wine tonight, father?”
He nodded. “There is always wine.”
“Did De Palma speak of his bomb?”
“He has nothing else.”
“Yes. He loves his misery. It is his only luxury. But tomorrow, we shall have rice and you can invite him for a change. There will be shrimps too.”
“And will you fish the canals of the Pasig?”
She smiled indulgently, rubbing her hair with a towel. “No, father. Just the market by the way. I shall have money.”
And then they were quiet.
When it seemed they would not speak at all, when there would always be this silence between them, he reached out, his hand full, and when she stooped to accept it, whatever it was, she found that this was a small wreath, a crown that he was giving her: flowers for the dead.
“I saw you in the graveyard,” he said, his voice not rising.
Wet from the rain, she shuddered. She gripped the crown; still trembling and now, she saw the red umbrella, dripping, as though dying its grief. At last, she understood and she flung herself at him.
“… Forgive them!” he cried. “For she knows not what she is doing!”
Together, they sobbed out the sin of the house on the boulevard, their pain mingling, young and old, veil and uniform, sword and sheath.
“She danced for you. Elena, child,” he stammered, “danced her soles worn, her lungs torn. I saw her thin every day that she was childless; thinner while she danced, clapping her tiny palm, cursing the barrenness and chanting the glory in the barrios where we went with the Virgin’s image in her missal…”
“I would pray too, for I could not father a child and your mother was bent from the old love of an old man ancient with revolution. And then one day, burning a taper in front of San Pascual, she danced in Obando, for some relatives had told her of the miracle and there we went, carrying her wooden shoes and the rosaries and my guitar whose fifth string was the necklace of my mother; a string heavy with the music of her country. So one night in Obando, I played for my wife; I played in the crook of my arm, the splendor of your face while she danced her bounty, danced you into her belly. In that night wild with omens, she danced you. Elena, on the earth that summoned the substances of providence… That body you now sell every night and that you cut for my meal each day-she danced every morsel of it in that rain in Obando when I played to her the songs of my father. Obando bore you, my daughter, on the heels of your mother’s love!”
And Elena, weeping, dropped on her knees to clutch at his feet.
“No more! No more!” she begged.
“I have been a monster, eating the nights of my daughter. The visitations of my child to the grave were nothing but license. And I thought it was rice, rice! Oh, I was feeding on you, my daughter! Eating your flesh day and night, your body, piece by piece, on the table while you surrendered it on the bed! Daughter!”
She shook violently.
He looked at the room, wincing at its every object. Her limbs made the steps of the hut strong; the cot, the stools, the spoons-her beauty. Perhaps the lantern shone because her mouth had loved sufficiently. Even the trunk she bought him could be a part of her, a mortgage to the men in her life. Everything in the house belonged to her body, everything. He was only a shadow in the womb burning out his candles, aging his wine.
Santiago buckled on his belt. Armed with his mission, he paced the floor; austere, elegiac, a Don Quixote in his cups.
Alarmed, she cried: “Where are you going?”
“I must free the people!” she said.
And pulling out his sword from the sheath.
“You are a prisoner in my belly while I eat!”
“I won’t let you go!”
“I must perform the operation!”
“You cannot do anything!”
She blocked his way.
“Do you think you can hold back my conscience?”
And he swept her aside with a strength he had not known since the last hierarchy. Elena sank into a swoon.
He was rushing down the stairway, into the street, around the corner, still hearing the plaintive cry of De Palma, and was gone in the direction of the rice store, rousing the rice beggars, inciting them to the victory.
A truck loaded with cereal sped by, but Santiago, like a warrior, speared the point of his sword, once, twice, and a burst of rice flowed down the dirt and a burst of people swooped down, scooped up grain cannibals. The truck bumped on a garbage can, swerved and smashed on its side, rice spilling out like white blood, exploding from the seams, inundating the sidewalk where haggard mothers suckled their infants still groaning from cockroaches, lice and vaccination. An old woman broke from the throng, a sack of rice twice her size saddled on her back. Santiago roared with sword and win, charging, rallying the people to the compound.
Before the guard could see him, Santiago had hurled himself into the barbed wire, and with a length of it sticking to his temples, he ran to the sacks in the nook where the dogs of the owner were fed with fish in the morning. And then, sword held tightly in his fist, cutting, slashing, crying, grabbing, he had clawed one sack open with his fingernails, and still clawing, he bled the rice out even as his fingers stained the grains and his people swarmed the fence. He crushed a handful of rice in his palm, scratching, moaning, and swearing at the loot that ran like wine down his veins. When the guard called to him, who was obviously their leader, Santiago was running leaving the butchered sack, running with rice in his hands. When the guard called again imploring and the old man fleeing did not answer, would not answer, the wind howling in the land-when calling again the guard did not reach thief running away, something like wind blew at Santiago, for the guard who was only a boy who had never held a gun before, had fired his rifle, dispersing the storm, leaving an old man resplendent with his medal.
And when Santiago fell-falling like a tear from a man’s grief-he fell not on a pile of jute sacks in a sawdust yard above the estero, but on a cool moonscape of grass in a long ago September, in the hollow of belief, in the proof of all their blood, in the mountains. Like a sign, like an old coin, gleaming, that would soon roll, lost, in a hole, he fell, as fallen he was part of the city’s mountains whose loneliness became his absence. So still he died the bullet that took whom almost seemed a gift, once given peace, a feast to God. Then alone, in a quiver of rice, he lay there with no one, save a sword and the sequins in the sky.