Tuesday, July 04, 2006

fiction: sabados con fray villalobos (excerpt)

Here's a bit from a story appearing in a food-themed antho edited by Cecilia Brainard and Marily Orosa coming out soon. I'm happy to have a Hinirang story as my contribution.

Sabados con Fray Villalobos (excerpt)
by Dean Francis Alfar

I suppose what happened to us one Saturday on the outskirts of Banay-banay was unavoidable. The Mother Church had no illusions about the enormous task of converting all of Hinirang to the saving grace of the Tres Hermanas. The road to the indios’ salvation was long, arduous, twisting, and fraught with many a pitfall for the unwary, the unprepared, and the faint of heart. After all, these people already had in place various false gods, spirits, ancestors, and otherworldly beings that they feared, loved, and worshipped.

None of us historians bothered to collate the complicated net of relationships between their assorted pantheons and divinities—all the more made confusing by the fact that every little tribal grouping had their own gods, in addition to the spirits they held in common with the other tribes in other places.

Our clergy had their work laid out like the imagined final image of an empty mosaic. Theirs was the responsibility of putting each tiny piece of glass together with the hope of creating a new nation of devotees, for the glory of the Tres. With each part of the picture completed, we historians would send word across the sea to the Mother Church, for their edification and praise.

We expected the indios to be grateful. After all, our motivation was the redemption of their pagan souls. In some areas, our clerics were successful. In other places, there was fierce resistance.

What seemed inevitable was that Fray Villalobos and I, on one of our culinary expeditions, would encounter a priest of the savage gods.

We were riding long into the night, returning to the misión after a full afternoon of making bibingka. Our hearts were full of praise for the Tres, and our bellies were bursting with cassava and coconut milk when the indio priest suddenly blocked our path, frightening our horses with his crazed appearance. He screamed something at the top of his lungs and waved some sort of feathered stick in his hands. The tattoos that covered his arms and upper chest decorated parts of his hideous face as well – a pair that resembled snakes framed his mouth in a most unflattering way.
Once again, he shouted something. I turned to Fray Villalobos and, maintaining an outward calm, asked him what the dreadful man was saying.

“He’s a wandering priest from somewhere in the south,” Fray Villalobos told me grimly. “He’s challenged me to a duel.”

I looked at him in astonishment. “A duel?”

Fray Villalobos nodded and dismounted quietly.

“Wait, wait,” I told him, trying to hold him back. “Why don’t we just offer him some bibingka? Or wine? I know we still have some in my bags.” I myself did not understand what I was trying to say. There was something in me that told me that something horrible was about to happen.

“I don’t think that would do anything,” Fray Villalobos replied, planting himself firmly on the ground. “Monja Barraquias, perhaps it is best if you leave as fast as you can.”

“Leave you?” I asked him incredulously. “If this pagan wants a fight, then smite him with the power of the Tres! You have Faith! Show him a miracle and let’s go home!”

“I would if I could,” he looked at me strangely, “but we are very far away from any Church demesne. This is their territory.”

“Then decline and let us be off,” I worriedly told him. “Please.”

“No. I cannot decline. I will not decline. He has blasphemed against the Tres,” he turned to me for a moment. “Go.”

“I will not leave you.”

“Then pray for me.” He turned to face the indio priest again.

I felt my heart sink as the priest bared his teeth and began walking towards us. I found myself retreating to keep the horses from bolting away. Part of me screamed at the injustice of the situation, at the unfairness of the ambush, for what Fray Villalobos said was absolutely true. Within the sphere of Church influence, the most powerful of our clergy, the ones with the greatest Faith, could work wonders and miracles, pull lightning from the sky and draw water from a stone. But outside of the Church lands, Faith could barely spark a flame or produce a drop of water. Outside, the spirits of Hinirang held sway. Outside, their vile spirits rode the storms and ruled the rivers.

“Leave us alone!” I shouted, as I felt an unearthly heat begin to form around the area. “Leave us alone!”

The ululating voice of the indio priest rose in volume and power, causing winds to thrash the ground into a frothing layer of dust, stone, and leaves. His outstretched hands contorted into painful positions, fingers splaying out in unnatural figurations. The feathered stick he carried glowed with an unnatural sheen of colors, and the tattoos that emblazoned his body seemed to move fluidly, crisscrossing, intersecting, breaking and reforming in bizarre patterns.

Fray Villalobos kept his eyes closed as the winds whipped his robe and habit around him, trying to find the calm center of Faith within himself. He chanted prayers to the Tres, raising his voice to counteract the singsong of his wicked adversary who began to call out to his heathen gods.

He raised the symbol of the Tres Hermanas above his head and bellowed out a powerful prayer, intoning the Holy Names of the Pio Familia, trying to create a small flame of Faith to protect him in this tribulation.

Above the cadence and rhythm of the competing voices, I heard a new sound, like a low moaning that originated from the evening sky. I saw the cloud of thousands and thousands of insects racing towards Fray Villalobos, commanded by the will of the indio priest, who had sung them into such an organized frenzy. I did not realize that I was already screaming as loudly as I could, screaming at the top of my lungs for this to just stop, for the horror to simply end, for this wicked, wicked man to just leave my friend alone.

At the moment before they struck him, Fray Villalobos opened his eyes and screamed, abandoned by the power of the Tres, unable to muster Faith, unable to do anything but be covered in the mass of insects that bit and clawed and devoured him in an eternal instant, reducing my friend of endless charm and collected recipes into nothing, nothing, nothing at all.

I had fallen to my knees—heedless of the horses, and weeping from the depths of my soul, finding no comfort in rage and helplessness—when the sound suddenly subsided. The insects dispersed to the four winds as the earth calmed and the indio priest examined what remained of my friend. I watched him mutely as he kicked the bones before walking towards me.

Umuwi na kayong lahat,” he told me.

Go home.

Go home.

Go home.


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