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"The foremost Filipino novelist in English, his novels deserve a much wider readership than the Philippines can offer."--Ian Buruma, New York Review of Books
"Tolstoy himself, not to mention Italo Svevo, would envy the author of this story."--Chicago Tribune
Dusk is the day's most blessed hour; it is the time when the spirits of darkness drift slowly down the bright domain. The acacia leaves droop, the fowl stop their cackling and fly to the boughs of the guava trees to roost, and as the light starts to fade and the shapes of trees and houses and even the motions of people seem shrouded, the essence of time, of change, and the brevity of life itself is realized at last.
Istak often felt like this about the day's end. If he were still in Cabugaw, where he had served as acolyte for the last ten years, he would now be going up the musty flight of adobe to the belfry. There, in the murk of early evening, he would toll the Angelus, stirring the bats that hung in the rotting eaves. It would be dark when he would go down the flight, the clap of bells still humming in his ears. In the past, he sometimes bumped into a protruding abutment, but he had learned to avoid the traps in the corners. Down the dim hollow, he would hurry, hurry to the convent where old Padre Jose had already said the Vespers and would be waiting to impart his blessings to Istak first because he was the oldest and the best, and then to the younger acolytes.
Now, it was dusk again. He hurried up the path to their house at the other end of the village. A lightness of spirit lifted him; he would have the first good meal ever since he left the convent, In the late afternoon, before he went to the fields, he had watched his mother dress the chicken; told her he must have the gizzard and the liver. Mayang had humored him with the promise, then sent him back to the field to help fill the gaps in the dikes before the rains came and ripped them apart.
The low eating table was set and around it sat his mother and father and Bit-tik, his youngest brother. Only An-no was not present, for he had gone to Cabugaw to give the new priest their gift. Istak bade his parents good evening, but only his mother returned his greeting. The old man's silence worried Istak; his father was moody again. In the orange glow of the oil lamp, his face was lined. His front teeth had been knocked out by a civil guard's rifle butt and as Ba-ac chewed, the depression in his right cheek deepened.
Istak dipped his hand into the shallow bowl of water. Mayang had prepared a tasty broth; she had chopped fresh ginger together with green papayas, and now the scent of chicken and spice came to his nostrils.
"Here is the gizzard," his mother said. She picked the piece from the still-steaming pot which she had placed in the middle of the low eating table and, as in a ceremony, placed it on Istak's plate. Bit-tik, the youngest of her three sons, took the pot by its narrow rim. He was fifteen and hungry. He, too, had his favorite piece and he held the pot obliquely to the light and, shaking it, examined its contents.
"Enough of that!" Mayang whacked her son's hand. She got the pot back, and with the ladle scooped out a leg and served her husband next.
Ba-ac picked up the leg and dropped it on Bit-tik's plate. He turned to his wife. "Let him eat the best. There is no use fattening chicken if we only give it away to the priest." He dipped his left hand--his good hand--into the pot and drew out the other leg. Shaking it before his wife's face, he continued, "How many did An-no bring to town? How many did we give for the salvation of our souls?"
Mayang was worried. Her husband was talking loudly. The neighbors might hear; they were all relatives, but still, what he said was almost blasphemy. She feared moments like this. It was as if in the eaves, in the corners among the torn fish traps and under the house, gnomes listened. She had known him all her life, even when she was still a child and he was already a man. She was just forty, almost thirty years younger than her husband--and the first touch of gray had come to her hair. She wore the drab gray cloth which she herself wove for the family and had suffered the weaving, sitting for hours before the wooden loom under the house until it was too shadowed to see the shuttle and yarn, and now she seemed to have developed a stoop as well. Her head bowed, Mayang cupped with her fingers a small ball of rice from her plate.
"I am speaking to you, Old Woman," Ba-ac said, his voice rising. "I ask again, how many chickens and eggs have we sent to the new priest while you let your sons starve?"
"Ay, Old Man, you haven't learned."
She turned to her two boys as if she wanted them to agree with her. At her right, Istak was hunched before the table. If he stood straight, he was taller than his father. His brow was high, implying to her a keenness of mind. He had, after all, stayed in the convent for ten years, teaching catechism not just to the children of Capitan Berong--Cabugaw's wealthiest citizen--but to the offspring of other mestizos. Padre Jose had opened to him not just what he knew of philosophy but also practical knowledge that had enabled him and the other Augustinians to thrive in another land, often inhospitable, often alien to their own customs. Istak's hair, though cropped short, was not bristly like a pig's, but soft and pressed flat and shiny with coconut oil which made not only his hair but his skin shine in the sallow light.
Ay! He was indeed the marked one, and on his face--once pale like a banana stalk--Mayang's eyes lingered,
The oil lamp started to flicker and Istak pushed out the reedmarrow wick. He reached out to the corner and took a small jar filled with fresh coconut oil and let a few drops trickle onto his plate. Then he filled the earthen hollow of the lamp, It burned brighter and showed clearly what hung from the palm-leaf wall--the squash headgear, the fish nets,
"Old Woman!" Ba-ac was insistent.
Mayang braved her husband's baleful stare. "I want to eat, Old Man. Eat, too, and receive God's grace."
Her husband would not be mollified. He waved his stump of a hand. "It is not God's grace but ours," he said hotly. "Ours which you sent to town today. How many chickens did you give that young priest so that he will save our souls?"
Mayang turned to her eldest son, as if in apology. "Your father does not know what be is saying--"
"I know," Ba-ac interrupted her. "You answer my question."
"You will know when An-no returns with our indulgences," she said, trying to humor him, for her tone became light. She went to the jar by the stove. When she returned, she had a large coconut shell filled with drinking water.
"I will not wait for An-no," Ba-ac said. He turned to his eldest son. "You helped catch the chickens, didn't you? How many were there?"
"Five, Father," Istak said softly. He dropped the ball of rice he had just lifted to his mouth. He had lost his appetite as the old and nagging futility of it all started to ride him again, He could not understand why he felt weak like this every time his father, in his blabbering rage, shook his stump of a hand as if it were some proud emblem.
"Five chickens for his birthday. Multiply that by a thousand because there are a thousand households in Cabugaw. How many then will he get on his birthday? Think--then look at us. How many times do we have chicken on our table? Istak did live well when he was in town! He should go back there so we can be sure that when we send food to the convent, our son will benefit from it."
I am no longer wanted there, Father. You know it."
"Be it that way then," Ba-ac said. The old man leaned forward, clenched his one good hand, and brought it down viciously on the table. The plates shook and the light--almost drowned by the oil--sputtered and dimmed.
"Stop this foolishness, you one-handed fool!" Mayang screamed. It was her time to be angry. Bit-tik continued eating, unmindful of what was happening. He straightened the pot and stirred the broth to see if there was some special piece he might yet pick.
"So I am one-handed," Ba-ac said, his voice quivering. "They should have killed me instead of lopping off just one hand."
"Be glad that you have one left; be glad you are alive, that you have sons who tend the field and look after you." She was no longer eating. The night had become grim.
Istak stood up and, without a word, walked away from the table. The slats creaked under him and the bamboo ladder, too, as he stepped down into the yard, where even the fleas must be asleep at this hour. He passed the bull cart parked in the shadow of the house. Tears burned in his eyes and he tried to hold them back but could not; so, too, the shame and the rage that had become a noose around his throat. He sat down on the tamarind stump by the bull cart and sobbed quietly. Let me not think ill of my father, for he has suffered. I never had and if at all, it is but here in the mind. I was never tied to a post and lashed, nor hung by one hand till the arm rotted off. But I have known pain just as keen because it lashed at the mind and heart. If only I were in Cabugaw again....
Only a month ago, he had lived fully, complacently, serving the kindly priest. But Padre Jose had grown old and had to be retired in Bantay. And one morning, in the motionless clarity of April, a carriage drawn by two Abra horses rolled into the churchyard and disgorged a young priest. His black cassock, unlike Padre Jose's, which was always soiled and frayed, was neat and pressed. His eyes were sky blue and his hair was the color of honey. His mouth was large and sensuous, and his voice when he summoned Istak brimmed with authority. Istak kissed the white hand, and as he looked up, the blue eyes regarded him, "You must be Eustaquio," the young priest said, and Istak replied in polite Spanish.
"Padre Jose thinks you should study in the seminary in Vigan. I have heard you are quite learned, you even know Latin."
But of what use was all this knowledge now? Around him was the night, total and vast, the cold sparkle of stars. The lamps of the other houses had all been snuffed out, but the crown of the dalipawen tree was ablaze with a thousand fireflies, and on a night like this, the spirits would be there, in harmony with the world in a way he was not.
To the west, rockets swished up the black bowl of sky, then burst among the stars, and moments later, the hollow whumps of their explosions came. It was like this, too, when the birthday of Padre Jose was marked as the birthday of the new priest was now being celebrated. Istak recalled how mountains of food and fruit from as far away as Manila would be set in the hall of the convent and the crowds would spill beyond the church doors into the yard. And shortly after the High Mass, in the heat of day, the old priest would sit on his carved, broad-backed chair in the shadow of the convent door and there the long line would begin--the principalia first, the village leaders, then the people--all would come to kiss the old man's hand and present their tokens of respect and indebtedness.
Ten years he was witness to this ritual of homage and obedience; ten years, too, he pondered and recited Virgil and Cicero, taught the children of Cabugaw's nobility, Capitan Berong's mischievous daughters--Carmencita, most of all. He had served in the Mass for so long, he could be a priest if it were just the liturgy that had to be mastered. Ten years and he saw his palms slowly shed their coarseness just as a serpent discards its skin in molting. What have I brought back with me from the house where God breathed? What have I done to myself and to this puerile mind? Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine--he remembered the lines and found in them neither solace nor meaning. And yet, thinking of Cabugaw again, remembering how difficult it would have been for Padre Jose to live alone, Istak felt a sense of achievement. As the oldest of the acolytes, he had helped Padre Jose in keeping the records, in going to the Igorote country, and in running the affairs of the church. It was perhaps out of gratitude that the old man called him to his room one afternoon and said. "Eustaquio. I will send you to the seminary in Vigan if you want to be a priest. You are now twenty."
The letter was written but Vigan was a full day away on horseback and the old priest was taken ill. A week later, he was ordered to live out his last years in Bantay and teach in the Vigan seminary across the river, an hour or so a day if he could.
The father's footfall was soft and slow; and, in a while, Istak could hear the old man's heavy breathing. But he did not speak for some time.
Ba-ac spoke finally, the anger gone from him. "Do you want to return to Cabugaw?"
Without turning, "No, Father. I am not wanted there anymore."
"But you are! You are!" Ba-ac cried. "Oh, my son, you don't know your worth. Here, nothing. But there, everything."
Istak let his fattier continue.
"Sometimes, I pray my strength will return so I would be able to take you away from this dark pit where we have all been flung, But I don't have the hand to do it and so I say words I never really mean. I am not cruel. Does any one of my children think I am? Yet, I sometimes sound like I am and only because of this arm ..."
Istak turned to his father. In the darkness, he could see the wasted face, the stoop, the shabby clothes that clung to the shriveled frame.
"Go to town tomorrow," Ba-ac repeated. "You are needed there. The sacristans must have a place for you, even in the kitchen. Padre Zarraga should take you back. Beg him. Your place is there."
"My place is here, too," Istak said quickly. "You know I can handle the plow as well as An-no."
"That is not to your liking." Ba-ac was insistent. "I have known it since that day Padre Jose selected you, I Still remember what he said, that you will go far because your mind is sharp, But what can I teach you?"
His father was going to start the ancient miserere again.
"How does a one-armed fool feel? Do you know what the priest did to me, Istak? Do you know how it is to be like this? He had no mercy, son, And he was a man of the cloth, a friar, a Spaniard!"
Istak had heard the story a hundred times, but he never stopped the old man, for every time he told the story, it seemed that the searing pain was eased a little.
"They hung me by the wrist of my right hand. How could I go to work on the new church when I was with fever? But they did not believe me and a week it was--a week and maybe longer. And when they brought me down, this arm was dead. I felt nothing but a rage as large as a house. And my arm--it was bloated and red. They cut it off--I watched them do it and I did not wince. I wrapped what they had cut off with banana leaves and buried it by the trail. They hung me by the right hand--and this stump--I swear to God, I stole nothing, not even time. Am I really a thief the way I am now marked? I stole not a single grain to feed you. You are the eldest, you know that. When I took you to town--a small boy then, barely up to my waist you were--but you were old enough then and you knew. Tell me, my son, that you believe me."
"Yes, Father," Istak said and within him he cried, Yes! I believe you. He rose, wrapped an arm around his father's shoulder. "There is nothing we can do but understand that we have to live, to know that we die when the time comes. As for the priests, not all of them are bad. Padre Jose--he would have helped if he had known. But he did not..."
"Still, you cannot rot here, Even Capitan Berong--he said you should be in Vigan, Lawag--or even Manila, where there are schools,"
"They are not for us, Father, and you know that," Istak said. "But with Padre Jose's help. I could have gotten in."
"You will not return to Cabugaw, then, if the new priest asks you?"
Istak turned away and did not answer. He would not take me back because he is young and so am I. But more than this, he will not take me back because I know what he has done; he cannot share a roof with a witness to his mortal sin.
Across the black maw beyond the cluster of houses, a steady barking of dogs broke out. "Must be An-no," Ba-ac said tentatively
Istak grunted and sat on the tree stump again. The whirr of crickets diminished, the barking of the dogs ceased, and the night became quiet once more. A breeze stirred and wafted to them the smell of dead leaves and the dung of animals. The sky above Cabugaw was slashed by the trail of a rocket. The thin line exploded, then came the distant whump. A dog barked again as a bull cart strained up the incline of the irrigation ditch before the village. Istak and Ba-ac turned to where the sound of creaking wheels came from.
The bull cart rolled past the other houses and headed for them. A couple sat on the bar before its bamboo canopy. As the cart stopped, An-no jumped down and went to Ba-ac at once, held his father's good hand and pressed it to his brow in salutation,
"You went to town on foot," Ba-ac said.
In the dark, the woman greeted them. Istak could not see her face, but her voice was warm and accented. The cart had a canopy; the visitor must have come from afar. She got down after An-no. Even in the dimness, although her face was indistinct, Istak could see that she was young. She did not have the stoop of an old woman. "She is Dalin," An-no said, introducing her. He was younger than Istak by two years, but though younger, he was bigger; the work on the farm had made him stronger, too. "They came from the land of salt," An-no announced.
"They?" Ba-ac asked.
"Her husband is in the cart," An-no continued. "Sick. He did not even speak all the way from the fork of the road where I saw them."
"He is dying," the woman said. Istak could make out her face now--a young face, with a full mouth and eyes that were large and bright.
"I am grateful to your son, Apo," she told Ba-ac, "I could not find the way. We have to hurry to anyone who knows how to care for the sick. My husband--since yesterday, he has been talking without reason and is very hot with fever, I must hurry."
Ba-ac ordered An-no to unhitch the bull cart and invited the woman up to the house, where a bowl of chicken broth awaited her. Having heard the voices, Mayang came down and joined them. She held a burning pine splinter and in its smoky glow, her face was serene. Now, Istak could see Dalin's handsome face, her shapeless cotton blouse, the full breasts underneath. In a glance Istak knew, too, that she had not yet known childbirth. She looked around her, at the family that welcomed her, and her voice quavered. "Thank God, I am with good people."
"You are very young," Istak said, amazed he had spoken the thought aloud at all, and when he turned away in embarrassment, his younger brother was glaring at him.
Istak took the torch from his mother and went to the cart. In its red glow, he saw what was inside--the sacks at one end, the figure stretched motionless on the bamboo floor--an old man with a pinched face and eyes closed.
"He is asleep," Istak said, peering briefly at them from the opening of the canopy. In that instant, a gust of wind snuffed out the light. Istak bent low to feel the man's pulse. In the last few years that he had worked in Cabugaw, Padre Jose had taught him what he knew of sicknesses, how to look at a Person and from the feel of his pulse, his warmth, deduce what ails him. Istak's hand rested on the man's arm and he found no wrist or hand--just a stump that had grown cold. Like his father, the man did not have a right hand!
I have seen men die as Padre Jose recited the last unction and I stood beside him, holding aloft the cross before the eyes that sometimes could no longer see. I have seen the dead in repose, in wooden coffins, or just wrapped up in old blankets, buri mats, or even bamboo slats from fish traps. I have stared at their sallow faces even as the holy water was splashed on their ashen skins like rain upon stone. I have seen them, but touched them, never.
A chill came over Istak and he pitched out of the cart, the splinter smoking in his hand. "Your husband is dead," he said.
Dalin sank slowly to the ground. She did not speak. Moans were ripped from her--animal sounds that were not a wail, but the horrible nameless sound of grief.
Posted October 7, 2008
A great novel deserving more exposure. This author is a genius of lyrical simplicity. His words are both accessible yet never boring - a must read for anyone interested in an interesting perspective of a time when American Imperialism first broke through.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 29, 2008
Taken with all the other novels comprising the Rosales Saga, 'DUSK' is, by all standards of greatness, the most grounded and socially relevant piece of literature that the Philippines has produced. It is a story of the Filipino's virtues and his foibles --- how he is poor, but never in spirit and an allegory of his journey for truth and redemption in the beautiful yet blighted land that is the Philippines. Full of truth, humanity, and yes --- compassion, --- this book is a feast of the printed word. This is the Great Filipino Novel written by a great novelist who is an even greater Filipino.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 29, 2001
Posted September 21, 2001
a very vivid representation of earlier filipino society filled with social conflicts and struggles. as one extended family moved from a province to another, they discovered that amidst the turmoil of social class distinctions, there are still those who would risk their life to help others. istak, the main character, was an educated acolyte, and the novel shows the painful and lethal consequences he paid for being one. jose also related the title 'dusk' to LIFE itself, that we begin life from darkness, and sooner or later that's where we're headed to. but after you read the novel, you will be the one to judge if such thought is justified. i have finished the rest of the rosales saga. it was great!!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted March 2, 2001
Mr. Jose is one man who could write with great intricacy about the lives of the filipinos during the turbulent days. His prose is subtle and marks a great sovereignty, which clearly marks that he uses the english language with great intricacy and use it with fine distinction.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.