The tropical rains had stopped pouring and the sky began to mellow from steel gray to deep blue. Along the muddy road to Guinigaran was a lone carriage dancing shakily as its two tired horses galloped past burnt cane fields and banana groves. The driver with sweatdrops beading his temples whipped the poor beasts without mercy for he knew he had to reach the parish before dusk for if he did not, the padre will surely beat him again as he did a fortnight ago. Andres knows the famous temper of the padre which erupts into a violent rage and painful ejaculations whenever a sensitive issue arises, and this time, the padre was irritably silent ever since he entered the carriage. He was afraid he might incur his ire just like the time when Ursula Iguaran wailed in front of the padre before mass cursing him why he took her son’s innocence. Andres remembered hearing from the townsfolk how Padre Pio sneered at the kneeling woman and spat on her face before closing the parish doors on her. The woman disappeared the next day, but a few nights after, the Guardia Civil noticed several strays near the river feasting on what seemed to be a dead animal but upon closer inspection, it was in fact the decaying corpse of Ursula Iguaran, her head bashed in, her face inscrutable. Everyone knew who did the crime, but all decided to keep their lips sewn together for fear of incurring the wrath of the Almighty who lives in the cura paroco. .
Andres’ thought was rudely dislodged when the right wheel suddenly struck with all the carriage’s weight into a wayside rock tilting Andre’s seat a bit too steep. He gritted his teeth as he pulled back the reins with all his might. The horror-stricken driver heard the priest growled in the back, “Letsugas ca, Andres! Magmanejo ca nan justo, estupido!” Andres cursed the damn priest for calling him stupid.
Inside, Padre Pio de Iturzaeta shifted his weight to the other side of the scuffed leather seat while he lifted and placed his parchments and suitcase on the floor. He dabbed his glistening forehead with his lace handkerchief, closed his eyes and muttered a prayer intoning a litany of the saints.
His white habit was drenched with sweat. As he stuffed his handkerchief back, he noticed how hideously tight the fabric was over his stomach. He took a mental note promising to lecture Rosario to stop cooking his daily meals full of coconut cream. He winced knowing it would be impossible to regain his former physique but still, it would give him great pleasure to chastise the young maid seeing how she quakes under his presence. It was three years ago that Padre Pio had observed how his thin body gave way to a creeping layer of fat that ultimately ended with a pregnant pause. “Surely, it cannot be from drinking the Lord’s blood and eating His holy bread,” he thought, smoothening the fabric. “Leche ca, Rosario!”
A native of Guipuzcoa, Padre Pio was a sullen and lanky boy forced by his penniless father into priesthood. He joined the Dominicans after being denied admission from every other order in the Basque region because they find him being too pale. After several fruitful years of training, he was first assigned to Bogota where he nearly died from a poisoned blow dart when the Arumbaya Indians mistook him for a tapir, then he trekked to Veracruz where he left behind three daughters all named Piedad, then he was shipped to the Isle of Fernando Poo where a jungle of a beard grew faster than he could shave. Tired and defeated, he was about to return to Spain when his superiors suggested that he take the recently vacated parish of Guinigaran in the Philippines. The previous priest was recalled to Manila for reports of indiscretions done inside the confessional. Padre Pio later found out, from garrulous matrons, that Fray Andres Santander tried to barter absolutions for jewelry which some matrons did in earnest. Luckily for Padre Pio, one matron wrote to the superior-general complaining how the price for absolution has quickly doubled in two weeks!
The carriage gave another heave, and Padre Pio felt a shot of pain arched to his chest. He felt the stress knotted the muscles of his heart and the vessels of his brain that only a minute surge of irritation can bring out the worst in him. For the priest, the worst had come. Padre Pio was deeply troubled at the news his superior gave him. It was sudden, but not unexpected. He knew all along that the new Governor-General would impose some changes to the whole frailocratic system but not this. Gov.-Gen. de la Torre had the temerity to “request” the Archbishop to ask all religious orders to accommodate seculars into their parishes. This would mean, Padre Pio deduced, a loss of influence and funds for the propagation of the faith. Every religious order in Luzon, from Nueva Segovia in the north to Nueva Caceres in the south will never tolerate such impertinence!
His thoughts went back to the morning’s meeting with the Superior-General, Fray Domingo Baltazar. Every Dominican friar scattered among the islands was in attendance, their faces haggard and impatient. The order given was adamant: either attend or be replaced. Even Padre Pio cannot rebuke such an order!
When everyone was gathered and seated in the main hall, Fray Baltazar began his tirade against the new governor-general.
“De malas! Damn the Carlistas and their liberal stupidity! This, this, creature called De la Torre must be stopped before it goes out of control,” the superior shouted as he wiped his habit the excess saliva that clung to his lips.
He continued, “All of us! Each one of you seated here today is in danger, no, rather our whole order here in the islands is in danger! Remember that my brothers!” Fray Baltazar wiped his lips again and his head upturned to the map nailed on the stone wall.
“This,” he said, his hands ejaculating to the florid lines and fawn-colored curlicues, “shall be overturned in a month, perhaps two! We have to act, my brothers! The seculars are salivating in their seats to fill in our churches. The archbishop was asked by De la Torre if we are can, in the name of Christian charity, spare some parishes for these mestizo half-breeds but our source in the Palacio tells me otherwise. De la Torre who is being made into a pawn by Burgos and Gomez, apparently wants us to relinquish half of our areas to these mestizo priests. My source also tells me he has drafted notes on allowing indios to be ordained as seculars. We wouldn’t want that, do we?”
As soon Fray Baltazar’s voice disappeared, a great uproar erupted among the white-robed friars. A few faces turned into ripened tomatoes while others into Japanese white. Their hands knifed the air with their furious discussions; their feet stomped on the clay tile floor.
Fray Baltazar could not help but gave a snort of amusement. “My dear brothers, I completely understand your concern but we must place our emotions into circumspect. Rather than wait here and complain, is it not more productive to chart our next line of action? We need to calm our minds so we can have a clear perspective of the situation!”
A balding friar from the back of the congregation spoke out in a thin wheezing voice, “But how? He has the support of the mestizos and every damn indio! Remember how he requested Padre Burgos to sit beside him during his inaugural parade? The archbishop could only grit his teeth from the humiliation! And the indios loved De La Torre for that! It would be very difficult for us to get the sympathy of every indio in Manila.”
Another friar from the opposite end bellowed, “I say, we pay a mercenary to send the good governor back to the Father’s house.” An audible gasp escaped inside the hall.
“My dear brother, I am shocked to hear such a suggestion! We are not anymore in the era of Torquemada! No, that is not acceptable!”, Fray Baltazar said, a crooked smile crept up his lips.
“Brother-superior, we can perhaps incite our parishioners to protest against De la Torre. A protest march to the Palace maybe? It shall make him treat us with more seriousness I believe,” said an aging friar sitting in the front row.
“Fray Simplicio, are you suggesting that we rouse up the whole population and lynch De la Torre just as we did away with Governor Bustamante?,” hissed Fray Baltazar. “No, no! We live in more enlightened times, my dear brothers. Any direct, violent and sensational intervention will leave a blot on our name. Such rash methods will only mean a loss of support for the religious orders. And that is the one thing the seculars are waiting for! No! For now, what we need is a more delicate way to replace that creature and what perfect way to start our proposal than to persuade the Cortes to replace him.”
A great murmur arose from the white robed congregation.
From the doorway, a young friar brought in a vellum-covered box which he placed on top of the narra table. Fray Baltazar walked towards it and removed the cover, his hands gently lifting several thin notebooks bound in leather. He said, “This is how we shall remove De La Torre from his high chair!”
The whole congregation was dumbfounded.
“H-How?,” one priest shouted.
“How? By collecting all the signatures of your parish, of course,” he said waving the leather notebooks in the air. Fray Baltazar smiled in triumph as if he just thought of the most brilliant idea. “By signing the petition, we can force the Cortes to recall De La Torre and replace him with someone more suitable in this climate. The Peninsulares will sign willingly no doubt. Every indio and mestizo however, must sign these books on the pain of excommunication! Be sure to tell them that! After you have completed the petition, we will send it to the chapter house in Spain where they will deliver it personally to the Cortes. It is not only us who are collecting petitions; every order is doing this just as we speak.”
“How early do you want these to be finished, Brother-superior?,” Fray Simplicio asked.
“My dear Fray Simplicio,” Fray Baltazar beamed at the old man, “if you can gather everyone’s signature by tomorrow, then we can topple De La Torre much faster than he can shout, ‘Viva la Libertad’!”
Another murmur rose among the priests seated, their heads going from left to right, nodding furiously, their tongues wagging like tails, their voices droning the hall into a veritable beehive.
Fray Baltazar laid the notebooks on the table and called the priests by name. Each one walked towards the center and was handed a thin volume and letters of instruction. The meeting ended quickly and everyone left the hall without much ado.
Dozens of black-painted carriages with their indio drivers waited on the courtyard. As soon as the friars appeared at the main door, the drivers scrambled to their horses and steadied the whining creatures. One after another, both priest and carriage left the courtyard like satiated mosquitoes flying off after a meal; Padre Pio’s was the last.
Padre Pio’s mosquito flew past dusty villages and golden fields of cane. It stopped only once when three-year old Celestina Barrero rushed back into the middle of the road to pick up her dropped copper centavo to which her gain was only to be trampled underfoot by the hooves of the two beasts. Padre Pio, unmoved by it all, made a sign of a cross, spat out of the carriage window his form of poor man’s holy water, and stomped on the wooden floor signaling Andres to go.
The friar looked down at the floor of the carriage; his eyes traced the leather notebook sitting atop the pile, quietly thinking how easy his task will be. He took a deep breath confident of his influence among the ignorant peasants and fawning landlords of Guinigaran. He could not control himself but let a slight chuckle escape his lips. His eyes closed, his fingers clasped together, and Padre Pio began to dream the fragrance he whiffed from Rosario’s oil-combed hair.
*** end of part one ***