Blood of Jose Rizal
by Brian Ascalon Roley
Originally published in Prairie Schooner
Recipient of The Lawrence Foundation Award
I wish to tell my daughter Bina, You are a great-great-grandniece of Jose Rizal, poet, novelist, revolutionary, martyr, a surgeon in Europe and a linguist in nineteen languages living and three dead – ancient Sanskrit and Greek and Latin – and he had six mistresses in six different countries the portraits of whom you can see in many restaurants in Old Manila, and you will see his name on every main street and on the side of every jeepney. This is your heritage. Your heritage is an ancient and schooled tradition. In my childhood we girls spoke Spanish in the home and in the school with the quick flavor of Castile. We had money then to send our daughters to finishing school in Salamanca. The men studied medicine in Padua, physics at Oxford, art in France.
Then we had money, and we squandered it. Jose Rizal had no children so you by way of his sister Fernanda are as true an heir to his tradition as any. When you were a child I took you to the monument to his greatness, the former Spanish colonial Fort Santiago, and you saw the Rizal museum where they had put up a family chart of his descendants, outside an old stone soldiers’ barracks, and you excitedly pointed to where your name is written there. Yet now you are here and married to this American man and living in a dilapidated farmhouse in Illinois. I cannot understand this. Also in our tradition is a noble and ancient Catholic Church and my understanding has always been that the wife is in charge of her children’s spiritual growth. This man says he is a Christian, and it is nice how he spends much time with your children, but I can’t understand this place you call a church. When I first walked inside, on that first Sunday I came to live with you and your ‘Christian’ husband, as he so often calls himself, the first thing I saw was not a great mosaic, not a statute of the Blessed Mother, not even a humble carving of one of the ancient saints — no, the first thing I noticed was that at the place where the ceiling meets the wall there is a crack and from this I could discern that it was dry wall. You could see the plaster beneath the thin layer of paint. It smelled of new carpet. The hall was thick with these farm people, many wearing jeans, and in the hall of prayer I saw no altar nor crucifix but merely a simple wooden cross, before which some young people set their guitars and microphones and a drumset and began playing ‘Christian music.’ This went on for half an hour. I kept waiting for the service to begin—for the Creeds or prayers—but I finally realized that this was their service. I have listened to Georgian Chants in monasteries in Italy, and even Eastern chants deep in the heart of Russia, and I can tell you this was not what I expected. You will forgive me if I tell you I was disappointed when the minister finally came on stage; this man with his ill fitted suit, broad shoulders, and hickish hair cut short over the ears and let long in back, gave one the impression that he was a shoe salesman, though he did seem friendly.
I would like to tell my daughter that her husband was curt with me the other day. But of course I cannot say this. It is best if I do not. I have tried not to be an ungrateful guest and this is his farm, I know, and these are his children — but I do not see that I did anything wrong, and it has always been my understanding the mother’s family is the one which provides guidance on religion. My daughter’s husband, this man, he came to me yesterday when I was on the porch in the morning in prayer. It was early and the sun not yet risen although the air was warm and thick. But a breeze blew through the corn and it reminded me of my father’s plantation of my youth — Tagkawayan — also known as Laurel, my maiden name. This was before I had a daughter, or any children, and we ran through the coconut trees whose fronds shook of the wind an hour to the ocean. There was a chapel there, and we prayed. It was a simple peasant’s hut, made of fronds, with simple dolls of the saints put in by the peasants. This was enough for us, then. So I don’t see how this man who is my daughter’s husband can call Catholics idol worshipers. A hut was enough for us. My granddaughter came up to me on the porch that morning. She asked me if I was an idol worshiper. I said no. She said her father’s friend said he prayed for my soul. He said she should pray with him, to get on her knees.
I said, You do not have to pray for my soul, Casey. I’m not an idol worshipper.
Mr. Baker said if I love you, I should.
Don’t worry for me, Casey. He is wrong.
But she retained that worried look in her eyes, with her head cocked sideways as if she were not sure whether she believed me.
So I decided to show her the picture book with the photos of French Cathedrals, Saint Peter’s in Rome, the Basilica, also paintings of Michelangelo, Raphael, and Goya. Such things could not be made but with the inspiration of God, I explained to her. Casey regarded me with her eyes hazelnut from her father’s side, looking worried, and she wore ill-fitted jeans like a boy and a tank top shirt like the peasants on my father’s farm. These were even dirty. I wished I could buy her a dress, but I couldn’t. I felt sorry and so had her fetch my picture book. It was a moment of sentiment, yes. A slight error, as I had promised my daughter’s husband I wouldn’t show it. But she looked so plain in her clothes. Like the peasants in the farm and even wealthy youth in Manila, who dress like teenagers in American shows. And though it is fine when you are in Manila to admire some things American, it is also nice for a Filipino child in America to know something of her heritage.
Casey flipped the thick pages. I didn’t tell her to, she began flipping herself. The Cathedrals looked nice in the rose light of the pre-dawn, strangely made soft by the nearness of so many corn fronds. A Cathedral would look nice on this farm. It is plain, plain, plain. And was it not nice for me to show her our native religion was greatness, not idolatry? As rightful as I felt, when I heard the screen door creak open and rattle shut, I felt in my body a quick jolt of worry which has been so pronounced since I have lived on this continent, and heard his thick heavy footsteps approach. The porch moved. It seemed to sink. I felt his body standing above me and he leaned forward and took my book. From his shadow’s movement I knew he opened its cover, and searched the pages. He did not give it back. I bought this book from a small Italian bookshop while on a trip to the Vatican, in a narrow hillside alleyway in Rome.
I had inserted a scrap portrait into this book, of Camille McCauley, Jose Rizal’s favorite mistress; it was pressed within the last pages. My deceased brother Nino had given it to me, and I wanted to show it to Casey. I hope it does not get lost.
This man who is my daughter’s husband, I watch him leave for the fields in the mornings, from my wicker chair on the porch, and all day have to watch my grandchildren do chores around the house like the peasants — like simple people — even the girl, Casey, who will turn out like a boy unless I can do something about it — and I tell you it is a strange thing to watch your granddaughter hauling buckets of horse manure about, with its stink and swarm of flies. She would look very pretty in a floral dress. A Spanish dress, like the belles of Salamanca. With my blood and his American blood she looks beautifully Spanish, and whoever heard of a Spanish girl going to a church whose floor is industrial carpet? For pews they have foldable chairs. At their entrance they have a desk with a sign that says ‘visitors’ and a man standing behind it all smiling like a concierge. Candida Laurel, I thought to myself. This place is a hotel, not a place of worship.
The boys I do not like. They are rough and pale looking. The little one is disrespectful. The older one is ugly. They tell their friends I am a Mexican and have stolen my rosaries. Their friends laugh.
But this girl has the blood of Jose Rizal. When she is upset with her mother — when her ears go red, and she squeezes her fists and I hear the little shoes stomping away from her mother — I know she has the poet’s blood. She comes to my room, when she is angry, and sleeps in my bed. I hold her hand and although once her tiny fingers would have fit into the palm of mine, now my fingers are thin from age, and our fingers twine nicely together. Her blood beats quickly, warmly in the tips. I teach her the rosary. She knows the Mysteries by heart.
She says, Why do they call them Mysteries?
I stroke the warm drops of sweat which soak her little forehead: Because this is a strange world which operates according to laws we do not understand. It is not in us to understand His ways.
She ponders this, and nods her head. It is the poet Rizal in her, I sense. I feel a quick fluttering in my chest, just to think of this. Like a butterfly within my heart. Even in her Spanishness she bears a marked resemblance to the poet’s last and most beautiful mistress, Camille McCauley, an Irish woman whose portrait you can see in many fine restaurants in Manila. She is not related, but the resemblance is there. I tell my granddaughter, You must be careful.
Why? she says.
You have the poet’s blood.
There. I put the word to it. In our family it has become almost taboo to say such a thing. To have the poet’s blood is both a good and a dangerous matter. Jose Rizal’s blood beat quickly in anger, and he wrote against the treatment of our country by the Spanish, and for this he was martyred in his thirties. He wrote many beautiful poems but lived in sin outside the Catholic Church. In our family we have those who have accomplished many things in this life, like Rizal the doctor. But there are others, like my sisters Ika and Ermita and Thora, and perhaps all but a handful of my uncles and brothers, who are brilliant and lost and taken to drinking and anger and wandering the world.
What is the poet’s blood? the girl says.
Some of your uncles have had it. They have killed men and led guerrilla armies. The jungles about our hacienda are peopled with their illegitimate children. Others accomplished much good in this life. Doctors. Attorneys. Businessmen. Priests. All have the blood of Jose Rizal. His face is on our country’s money.
What is an illegitimate children?
I do not answer her. You must be very careful, I say.
It is a hard life. Aie Buhay, Dios Kopo, we have these sayings. But you are beautiful like Camille McCauley. That is both good and dangerous.
She wants to know what Camille McCauley looks like, and I tell her about the picture in the book her father took away. I know I shouldn’t have. She looks at me strangely, then says she will ask her father to give it back.
But it’s your picture.
Let’s not make trouble, Casey.
She frowns, but I tell her again not to mention this to her father. After all, if he is going to give my photo back he should do it on his own.
But the next morning I find the picture book set on the wicker table on the porch, beneath a crumpling of musty newspapers. I lift the sheets aside, and it is there, the clear cover lightly dusty. Within the book I see that the picture of Rizal’s final mistress is gone, and I know Casey has it and it was she who had gone to her father. She disobeyed me. I look for her with my eyes, but all that morning she does not pass in front of the porch. Then, after noon, I see her cross from the back of the barn and take the long way to enter by the side of the house, her gaze shyly avoiding my direction.
I shout, Casey! but she pretends not to hear.
Finally, when the sun has lowered over the fields so that it comes softly through the waved and crooked screen, as through warped and crooked glass, she steps shyly into the doorway from the house. I call her over.
Casey, I say. You should not have told your father.
I told you not to tell him.
I didn’t tell him.
Don’t lie to me, Casey. I know you put the book here on the table. Didn’t you?
She says that she did but that she took the book without telling her father.
I grip her hand and pull her close to me. Casey.
Put it back.
She does not want to. Within her fingers is clutched the withered portrait of Camille McCauley, who does indeed look like Casey. It has been a long time since I have seen this picture. I am sure of it now, she has the poet’s blood. I feel a chill in my old bones. She hides it behind her back, her ears going red again with indignation.
Give me the picture, I say.
Now, I say.
She tells me it is mine and not her father’s. It is not stealing.
I clutch her again, closer. I hold her wrists and feel the sharpness of her American bones. I tell her she must be extra careful not to be sinful; to be vigilant, to look after her soul.
After she leaves to return the picture to her father, I worry about her soul. The sun sets and shadows lengthen and vanish, but still I worry. My daughter comes out and calls me to dinner, but I am too busy praying. She hesitates in the doorway, then leaves. An hour later she tries again, but I am in a Hail Mary.
That night I pray. I do not sleep, nor eat, but fast. I kneel until my skin bruises against the knees, then lay a pillow on the ground and kneel again.
You see I know this girl has not and will never take confession. Nor will she eat of the Blood and Body of the Christ, since at their church they refuse to use “instruments” of Christ, but prefer to use a rock band. Casey has the blood of the Bad Rizal and will never take communion or confession.
My daughter and her husband come to me more often in the mornings, and also later in the days. I feel them watching me from their doorway, then they come by my chair.
She has her head lowered shamefully, but raises her eyes to me shyly.
Mami, we have something for you, she says.
The husband hands me the picture book, and also a frame he made by his carpenter’s hands encasing my photo of Camille McCauley. He says the book was on the living room shelf and that there was a misunderstanding. I can feel from the frame that it is made of oak, and the edges carefully sanded. There was a large oak tree in the backyard which his great grandfather planted, and I know this wood is of that tree.
My daughter steps before her husband, and leans over me. Her eyes look worried and her hands hang folded before her.
Why do you cry, Mami? she says.
This husband, his nose has large pores that are red and he tries to touch my daughter’s shoulders but she turns away. About his thick neck he wears a shirt that looks to belong to a lumberjack, and I feel sorry for his lack of sense of fashion. My hand nearly reaches out to touch his elbow, to get his attention, but I hesitate, and it is too late.
As the days pass they come to the porch more often, but I do not tell them Casey has the poet’s blood. The corn stalks stretch to the sun, and then I watch as my daughter’s husband rides over them with a tractor, and they lay snapped and broken like yellow bones among dark clumps of soil.
It snows. After the clouds have gone, the sky does not turn blue again, but remains a silver color. In the distance the trees by the road stand leafless like the ribs of an old broken fan. Sometimes I can see the black buggies of the Amish pulled by trotting horses. My daughter’s husband puts a heater on the porch. Still the wind scrapes cold against my cheeks. He sets a pile of blankets at my feet, then lays them over my knees, and wraps them about my body.
My daughter stands watching me, as I pray. I say nothing but she stands there foolishly. Outside I can hear the man who is her husband sawing. The boards of the oak lie carefully shielded from the snow beneath sheets of plastic, and he peels them off in the mornings and saws.
He fashions and affixes a wooden pole to my bathroom walls, handrails that perfectly fit my old palm bones.
It is a help. My body is becoming a burden. With the snow came a pain that lodged in my joints like icicles shaped as knives. The rains followed and with them the close of winter, but still the pains have not gone away. He builds me a crutch so that I may limp out onto my porch, and builds a shorter table so I may eat more comfortably with them in the kitchen. His sister knits me a pillow to sit on, knowing that my legs now easily bruise. They try to get me to eat more, saying I am too thin. They try to get me to take vitamins, though I refuse.
My daughter steps onto the porch while the others are still inside. She hesitates, peering into the lighted house behind her, but then comes beside me and puts a hand upon my shoulder. It is a cold night and I feel the warmth of her palm through my dress but I do not say anything and it lies there unmoving. Finally her fingers stir, and my daughter asks me about my crying.
She says, Mami, please. We will do anything.
I don’t tell her about the blood of Jose Rizal, nor of his mistress. She will no longer understand.
But she persists, and I tell her about the confession and she bites her lip and turns away, cupping her elbows. She says nothing, but does not leave.
They take turns driving me to church; I go four times a week. It is a long drive, nearly an hour; there are not many Catholics here, you see. They drive me to the door and help me to my seat, but then the husband and even my daughter, will not stay during mass. They sit in their cars instead. My daughter used to go to mass before dawn for the nine days in a row preceding Christmas, as we all did. Once I came out early and found my daughter’s husband sitting in the driver’s seat with a Bible open on his lap, his lips mumbling profusely. This was not very nice to see.
During the masses I pray for my daughter and for Casey.
I have a plan. When the girl is old enough for confession and first communion, I will drive her to the Catholic church. It is an older building, built by German immigrants 80 years ago, and as you approach its dome and tower poke up above cornfields and reach for the blueness of sky. She will like it, I think. I have not driven in some time, but for her I will try. We will have to be careful. My daughter and her husband must not know.
Their friends from their church come to visit me when I can no longer walk, and one who works in a hospital brings a wheelchair. It sits large and angled in the trunk of his big car, the hood popped open, and I know from its gleaming that it is new and nice. My son-in-law heaves it upon his back and, hunched over, carries it to my porch. I thank them.
They lift me and set me on the wheel chair, and this man wraps a blanket around my useless legs. I should have been more diligent in caring for my legs, I know this now. I will no longer be able to drive Casey to confession. The Catholic church has many concrete steps before it, and although I only fell down a dozen of them, they felt very hard. My daughter’s husband ran to where I lay trying to push myself up with my hands, and he picked up my uncooperative body and carried me to the car. The asphalt rushed beneath me like a pebbly stream. Then, as he lay me in the back seat, upon vinyl hot against my back even through the cloth of my mourner’s dress, he kissed my forehead and called me ‘grandma.’ This is the man who will not let my granddaughter make confession. He wiped sweat from his forehead, and took me quickly to his doctor.
Their church friends bring me gifts.
Before meals I hear them and their friends praying in hushed whispers at the table, before sending Casey to fetch me for dinner. Today Casey pushes me in on their prayer unexpectedly, and they prod each other to quietness, and I think from their worried eyes that they have been praying for me, and it spoils my appetite.
After supper, they get their cups of coffee and sit with me on the porch. They pull up folding chairs. They smile more than Catholics do.
The friends say, Grandma, tell us stories about the Philippines.
I tell them out of politeness. But it depresses me to see these people, with their Spartan ways, and to think that my grandchildren will come to this. Already our boys play with their boys, and speak English which is equally rough. It is tiring to talk. And I need my energy to pray.
Three times a week I go to mass. Now they wheel me into church and set me in back. They even stand behind me, so that they can wheel my chair up for communion. I believe they talked this over among themselves, and decided it was right to do. They push me past rows of nearly empty pews. I feel the presence of my daughter or her husband behind me, as the Father leans forward to place the host upon my tongue. I wonder if he notices how my daughter does not take communion. She does not even cross her arms for a blessing. I have not told him who she is. Perhaps he wonders. After the other parishioners have left, I stay and pray some minutes for the girl, and they wait patiently for me to finish.
But they will never let Casey take confession. I know this. My daughter, I know, believes my worrying is taking a toll on my body, and fears I will die. She pinches my skin with her fingers, to feel how much flesh remains on the bone, like some farm animal, and I tell her to leave me alone. I wish to tell her this will not happen for a long, long time because first I must make sure about her daughter, although I cannot say this.
Now that I cannot drive, I will have to wait until the girl is sixteen before I can die. When she is sixteen I will have her drive over for confession. Then I can die in peace.
But my daughter and the man who is her husband make it difficult; they do not leave the granddaughter alone with me often. She has chores, and the husband labors now with his carpentry on the grass before my porch, and when he is in the fields or away she, my daughter, lingers about my wheel chair, trying to feed me cookies and offering me cups of tea and coffee.
I say, Leave me alone.
But she lurks watching behind the door screen, and I feel her shadow.
Before me now, there is a bowl full of uneaten cookies. Also some candies carefully unwrapped. I can smell the corn but also sawdust and I can hear her husband, this man, hammering on some wood to construct an extra bed so that I may lie on the porch. He wipes his forehead with his lumberjack sleeve, and pulls out a saw.
When he hunches over with his saw, it reminds me of Tagkawayan, when they built my brother’s coffin. There was an old acacia tree behind the place where my father’s house used to stand, among a yard of tall grass and mango trees, and my brother had men cut the tree into planks to build a new floor for the house of our sister Illuminada who was going to come back to Tagkawayan. She had been staying with her son, Bino, in Manila, and planned to stay only until her granddaugther’s wedding. But after the ceremony her son would not let her go on. He said there were no doctors on the farm of our youth, but my sister wept and wanted to go. I believe this son thought he was being dutiful, or perhaps feared she would be injured and die and people would talk. But she died soon after of a broken heart, and our brother left those boards on the field and when he died a year later the peasants of the land who loved him made them into a coffin and laid him into the ground.
I wish to go there someday too, so that I may be buried with my brother and father in the province of Jose Rizal. But I must stay for my granddaughter’s sake. She cannot come into my room at night, any longer. My daughter says, Eat Mami, please! and I take the food to my mouth. It is hard, and I have no appetite for food from her hands. But I take it to my mouth for my granddaughter’s sake. It is best to be vigilant. She has the blood of Rizal, the eyes of his final mistress.