The stars still glittered in the sapphire arch of heaven and the birds were still sleeping among the branches when a merry party, lighted by torches of resin, commonly called huepes, made its way through the streets toward the lake. There were five girls, who walked along rapidly with hands clasped or arms encircling one another’s waists, followed by some old women and by servants who were carrying gracefully on their heads baskets of food and dishes. Looking upon the laughing and hopeful countenances of the young women and watching the wind blow about their abundant black hair and the wide folds of their garments, we might have taken them for goddesses of the night fleeing from the day, did we not know that they were Maria Clara and her four friends, the merry Sinang, the grave Victoria, the beautiful Iday, and the thoughtful Neneng of modest and timid beauty. They were conversing in a lively manner, laughing and pinching one another, whispering in one another’s ears and then breaking out into loud laughter.
“You’ll wake up the people who are still asleep,” Aunt Isabel scolded. “When we were young, we didn’t make so much disturbance.”
“Neither would you get up so early nor would the old folks have been such sleepy-heads,” retorted little Sinang.
They were silent for a short time, then tried to talk in low tones, but soon forgot themselves and again filled the street with their fresh young voices.
“Behave as if you were displeased and don’t talk to him,” Sinang was advising Maria Clara. “Scold him so he won’t get into bad habits.”
“Don’t be so exacting,” objected Iday.
“Be exacting! Don’t be foolish! He must be made to obey while he’s only engaged, for after he’s your husband he’ll do as he pleases,” counseled little Sinang.
“What do you know about that, child?” her cousin Victoria corrected her.
“Sst! Keep quiet, for here they come!”
A group of young men, lighting their way with large bamboo torches, now came up, marching gravely along to the sound of a guitar.
“It sounds like a beggar’s guitar,” laughed Sinang. When the two parties met it was the women who maintained a serious and formal attitude, just as if they had never known how to laugh, while on the other hand the men talked and laughed, asking six questions to get half an answer.
“Is the lake calm? Do you think we’ll have good weather?” asked the mothers.
“Don’t be alarmed, ladies, I know how to swim well,” answered a tall, thin, emaciated youth.
“We ought to have heard mass first,” sighed Aunt Isabel, clasping her hands.
“There’s yet time, ma’am. Albino has been a theological student in his day and can say it in the boat,” remarked another youth, pointing to the tall, thin one who had first spoken. The latter, who had a clownish countenance, threw himself into an attitude of contrition, caricaturing Padre Salvi. Ibarra, though he maintained his serious demeanor, also joined in the merriment.
When they arrived at the beach, there involuntarily escaped from the women exclamations of surprise and pleasure at the sight of two large bankas fastened together and picturesquely adorned with garlands of flowers, leaves, and ruined cotton of many colors. Little paper lanterns hung from an improvised canopy amid flowers and fruits. Comfortable seats with rugs and cushions for the women had been provided by Ibarra. Even the paddles and oars were decorated, while in the more profusely decorated banka were a harp, guitars, accordions, and a trumpet made from a carabao horn. In the other banka fires burned on the clay kalanes for preparing refreshments of tea, coffee, and salabat.
“In this boat here the women, and in the other there the men,” ordered the mothers upon embarking. “Keep quiet! Don’t move about so or we’ll be upset.”
“Cross yourself first,” advised Aunt Isabel, setting the example.
“Are we to be here all alone?” asked Sinang with a grimace. “Ourselves alone?” This question was opportunely answered by a pinch from her mother.
As the boats moved slowly away from the shore, the light of the lanterns was reflected in the calm waters of the lake, while in the eastern sky the first tints of dawn were just beginning to appear. A deep silence reigned over the party after the division established by the mothers, for the young people seemed to have given themselves up to meditation.
“Take care,” said Albino, the ex-theological student, in a loud tone to another youth. “Keep your foot tight on the plug under you.”
“It might come out and let the water in. This banka has a lot of holes in it.”
“Oh, we’re going to sink!” cried the frightened women.
“Don’t be alarmed, ladies,” the ex-theological student reassured them to calm their fears. “The banka you are in is safe. It has only five holes in it and they aren’t large.”
“Five holes! Jesús! Do you want to drown us?” exclaimed the horrified women.
“Not more than five, ladies, and only about so large,” the ex-theological student assured them, indicating the circle formed with his index finger and thumb. “Press hard on the plugs so that they won’t come out.”
“María Santísima! The water’s coming in,” cried an old woman who felt herself already getting wet.
There now arose a small tumult; some screamed, while others thought of jumping into the water.
“Press hard on the plugs there!” repeated Albino, pointing toward the place where the girls were.
“Where, where? Diós! We don’t know how! For pity’s sake come here, for we don’t know how!” begged the frightened women.
It was accordingly necessary for five of the young men to get over into the other banka to calm the terrified mothers. But by some strange chance it seemed that there w, as danger by the side of each of the dalagas; all the old ladies together did not have a single dangerous hole near them! Still more strange it was that Ibarra had to be seated by the side of Maria Clara, Albino beside Victoria, and so on. Quiet was restored among the solicitous mothers but not in the circle of the young people.
As the water was perfectly still, the fish-corrals not far away, and the hour yet early, it was decided to abandon the oars so that all might partake of some refreshment. Dawn had now come, so the lanterns were extinguished.
“There’s nothing to compare with salabat, drunk in the morning before going to mass,” said Capitana Tika, mother of the merry Sinang. “Drink some salabat and eat a rice-cake, Albino, and you’ll see that even you will want to pray.”
“That’s what I’m doing,” answered the youth addressed. “I’m thinking of confessing myself.”
“No,” said Sinang, “drink some coffee to bring merry thoughts.”
“I will, at once, because I feel a trifle sad.”
“Don’t do that,” advised Aunt Isabel. “Drink some tea and eat a few crackers. They say that tea calms one’s thoughts.”
“I’ll also take some tea and crackers,” answered the complaisant youth, “since fortunately none of these drinks is Catholicism.”
“But, can you—” Victoria began.
“Drink some chocolate also? Well, I guess so, since breakfast is not so far off.”
The morning was beautiful. The water began to gleam with the light reflected from the sky with such clearness that every object stood revealed without producing a shadow, a bright, fresh clearness permeated with color, such as we get a hint of in some marine paintings. All were now merry as they breathed in the light breeze that began to arise. Even the mothers, so full of cautions and warnings, now laughed and joked among themselves.
“Do you remember,” one old woman was saying to Capitana Tika, “do you remember the time we went to bathe in the river, before we were married? In little boats made from banana-stalks there drifted down with the current fruits of many kinds and fragrant flowers. The little boats had banners on them and each of us could see her name on one of them.”
“And when we were on our way back home?” added another, without letting her go on. “We found the bamboo bridges destroyed and so we had to wade the brooks. The rascals!”
“Yes, I know that I chose rather to let the borders of my skirt get wet than to uncover my feet,” said Capitana Tika, “for I knew that in the thickets on the bank there were eyes watching us.”
Some of the girls who heard these reminiscences winked and smiled, while the others were so occupied with their own conversations that they took no notice.
One man alone, he who performed the duty of pilot, remained silent and removed from all the merriment. He was a youth of athletic build and striking features, with large, sad eyes and compressed lips. His black hair, long and unkempt, fell over a stout neck. A dark striped shirt afforded a suggestion through its folds of the powerful muscles that enabled the vigorous arms to handle as if it were a pen the wide and unwieldy paddle which’ served as a rudder for steering the two bankas.
Maria Clara had more than once caught him looking at her, but on such occasions he had quickly turned his gaze toward the distant mountain or the shore. The young woman was moved with pity at his loneliness and offered him some crackers. The pilot gave her a surprised stare, which, however, lasted for only a second. He took a cracker and thanked her briefly in a scarcely audible voice. After this no one paid any more attention to him. The sallies and merry laughter of the young folks caused not the slightest movement in the muscles of his face. Even the merry Sinang did not make him smile when she received pinchings that caused her to wrinkle up her eyebrows for an instant, only to return to her former merry mood.
The lunch over, they proceeded on their way toward the fish-corrals, of which there were two situated near each other, both belonging to Capitan Tiago. From afar were to be seen some herons perched in contemplative attitude on the tops of the bamboo posts, while a number of white birds, which the Tagalogs call kalaway, flew about in different directions, skimming the water with their wings and filling the air with shrill cries. At the approach of the bankas the herons took to flight, and Maria Clara followed them with her gaze as they flew in the direction of the neighboring mountain.
“Do those birds build their nests on the mountain?” she asked the pilot, not so much from a desire to know as for the purpose of making him talk.
“Probably they do, señora,” he answered, “but no one up to this time has ever seen their nests.”
“Don’t they have nests?”
“I suppose they must have them, otherwise they would be very unfortunate.”
Maria Clara did not notice the tone of sadness with which he uttered these words. “Then—”
“It is said, señora,” answered the strange youth, “that the nests of those birds are invisible and that they have the power of rendering invisible any one who possesses one of them. Just as the soul can only be seen in the pure mirror of the eyes, so also in the mirror of the water alone can their nests be looked upon.”
Maria Clara became sad and thoughtful. Meanwhile, they had reached the first fish-corral and an aged boatman tied the craft to a post.
“Wait!” called Aunt Isabel to the son of the fisherman, who was getting ready to climb upon the platform of the corral with his panalok, or fish-net fastened on the end of a stout bamboo pole. “We must get the sinigang ready so that the fish may pass at once from the water into the soup.”
“Kind Aunt Isabel!” exclaimed the ex-theological student. “She doesn’t want the fish to miss the water for an instant!”
Andeng, Maria Clara’s foster-sister, in spite of her carefree and happy face, enjoyed the reputation of being an excellent cook, so she set about preparing a soup of rice and vegetables, helped and hindered by some of the young men, eager perhaps to win her favor. The other young women all busied themselves in cutting up and washing the vegetables.
In order to divert the impatience of those who were waiting to see the fishes taken alive and wriggling from their prison, the beautiful Iday got out the harp, for Iday not only played well on that instrument, but, besides, she had very pretty fingers. The young people applauded and Maria Clara kissed her, for the harp is the most popular instrument in that province, and was especially suited to this occasion.
“Sing the hymn about marriage,” begged the old women. The men protested and Victoria, who had a fine voice, complained of hoarseness. The “Hymn of Marriage” is a beautiful Tagalog chant in which are set forth the cares and sorrows of the married state, yet not passing over its joys.
They then asked Maria Clara to sing, but she protested that all her songs were sad ones. This protest, however, was overruled so she held back no longer. Taking the harp, she played a short prelude and then sang in a harmonious and vibrating voice full of feeling:
Sweet are the hours in one’s native land,
Where all is dear the sunbeams bless;
Life-giving breezes sweep the strand,
And death is soften’d by love’s caress.
Warm kisses play on mother’s lips,
On her fond, tender breast awaking;
When round her neck the soft arm slips,
And bright eyes smile, all love partaking.
Sweet is death for one’s native land,
Where all is dear the sunbeams bless;
Dead is the breeze that sweeps the strand,
Without a mother, home, or love’s caress.
The song ceased, the voice died away, the harp became silent, and they still listened; no one applauded. The young women felt their eyes fill with tears, and Ibarra seemed to be unpleasantly affected. The youthful pilot stared motionless into the distance.
Suddenly a thundering roar was heard, such that the women screamed and covered their ears; it was the ex-theological student blowing with all the strength of his lungs on the tambuli, or carabao horn. Laughter and cheerfulness returned while tear-dimmed eyes brightened. “Are you trying to deafen us, you heretic?” cried Aunt Isabel.
“Madam,” replied the offender gravely, “I once heard of a poor trumpeter on the banks of the Rhine who, by playing on his trumpet, won in marriage a rich and noble maiden.”
“That’s right, the trumpeter of Sackingen!” exclaimed Ibarra, unable to resist taking part in the renewed merriment.
“Do you hear that?” went on Albino. “Now I want to see if I can’t have the same luck.” So saying, he began to blow with even more force into the resounding horn, holding it close to the ears of the girls who looked saddest. As might be expected, a small tumult arose and the mothers finally reduced him to silence by beating him with their slippers1 and pinching him.
“My, oh my!” he complained as he felt of his smarting arms, “what a distance there is between the Philippines and the banks of the Rhine! O tempora! O mores! Some are given honors and others sanbenitos!”
All laughed at this, even the grave Victoria, while Sinang, she of the smiling eyes, whispered to Maria Clara, “Happy girl! I, too, would sing if I could!”
Andeng at length announced that the soup was ready to receive its guests, so the young fisherman climbed up into the pen placed at the narrower end of the corral, over which might be written for the fishes, were they able to read and understand Italian, “Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’ entrante,”2 for no fish that gets in there is ever released except by death. This division of the corral encloses a circular space so arranged that a man can stand on a platform in the upper part and draw the fish out with a small net.
“I shouldn’t get tired fishing there with a pole and line,” commented Sinang, trembling with pleasant anticipation.
All were now watching and some even began to believe that they saw the fishes wriggling about in the net and showing their glittering scales. But when the youth lowered his net not a fish leaped up.
“It must be full,” whispered Albino, “for it has been over five days now since it was visited.”
The fisherman drew in his net, but not even a single little fish adorned it. The water as it fell back in glittering drops reflecting the sunlight seemed to mock his efforts with a silvery smile. An exclamation of surprise, displeasure, and disappointment escaped from the lips of all. Again the youth repeated the operation, but with no better result.
“You don’t understand your business,” said Albino, climbing up into the pen of the corral and taking the net from the youth’s hands. “Now you’ll see! Andeng, get the pot ready!”
But apparently Albino did not understand the business either, for the net again came up empty. All broke out into laughter at him.
“Don’t make so much noise that the fish can hear and so not let themselves be caught. This net must be torn.” But on examination all the meshes of the net appeared to be intact.
“Give it to me,” said Leon, Iday’s sweetheart. He assured himself that the fence was in good condition, examined the net and being satisfied with it, asked, “Are you sure that it hasn’t been visited for five days?”
“Very sure! The last time was on the eve of All Saints.”
“Well then, either the lake is enchanted or I’ll draw up something.”
Leon then dropped the pole into the water and instantly astonishment was pictured on his countenance. Silently he looked off toward the mountain and moved the pole about in the water, then without raising it murmured in a low voice:
“A cayman!” repeated everyone, as the word ran from mouth to mouth in the midst of fright and general surprise.
“What did you say?” they asked him.
“I say that we’re caught a cayman,” Leon assured them, and as he dropped the heavy end of the pole into the water, he continued: “Don’t you hear that sound? That’s not sand, but a tough hide, the back of a cayman. Don’t you see how the posts shake? He’s pushing against them even though he is all rolled up. Wait, he’s a big one, his body is almost a foot or more across.”
“What shall we do?” was the question.
“Catch him!” prompted some one.
“Heavens! And who’ll catch him?”
No one offered to go down into the trap, for the water was deep.
“We ought to tie him to our banka and drag him along in triumph,” suggested Sinang. “The idea of his eating the fish that we were going to eat!”
“I have never yet seen a live cayman,” murmured Maria Clara.
The pilot arose, picked up a long rope, and climbed nimbly up on the platform, where Leon made room for him. With the exception of Maria Clara, no one had taken any notice of him, but now all admired his shapely figure. To the great surprise of all and in spite of their cries, he leaped down into the enclosure.
“Take this knife!” called Crisostomo to him, holding out a wide Toledo blade, but already the water was splashing up in a thousand jets and the depths closed mysteriously.
“Jesús, María, y José!” exclaimed the old women. “We’re going to have an accident!”
“Don’t be uneasy, ladies,” said the old boatman, “for if there is any one in the province who can do it, he’s the man.”
“What’s his name?” they asked.
“We call him ‘The Pilot’ and he’s the best I’ve ever seen, only he doesn’t like the business.”
The water became disturbed, then broke into ripples, the fence shook; a struggle seemed to be going on in the depths. All were silent and hardly breathed. Ibarra grasped the handle of the sharp knife convulsively.
Now the struggle seemed to be at an end and the head of the youth appeared, to be greeted with joyful cries. The eyes of the old women filled with tears. The pilot climbed up with one end of the rope in his hand and once on the platform began to pull on it. The monster soon appeared above the water with the rope tied in a double band around its neck and underneath its front legs. It was a large one, as Leon had said, speckled, and on its back grew the green moss which is to the caymans what gray hairs are to men. Roaring like a bull and beating its tail against or catching hold of the sides of the corral, it opened its huge jaws and showed its long, sharp teeth. The pilot was hoisting it alone, for no one had thought to assist him.
Once out of the water and resting on the platform, he placed his foot upon it and with his strong hands forced its huge jaws together and tried to tie its snout with stout knots. With a last effort the reptile arched its body, struck the floor with its powerful tail, and jerking free, hurled itself with one leap into the water outside the corral, dragging its captor along with it. A cry of horror broke from the lips of all. But like a flash of lightning another body shot into the water so quickly that there was hardly time to realize that it was Ibarra. Maria Clara did not swoon only for the reason that the Filipino women do not yet know how to do so.
The anxious watchers saw the water become colored and dyed with blood. The young fisherman jumped down with his bolo in his hand and was followed by his father, but they had scarcely disappeared when Crisostomo and the pilot reappeared clinging to the dead body of the reptile, which had the whole length of its white belly slit open and the knife still sticking in its throat.
To describe the joy were impossible, as a dozen arms reached out to drag the young men from the water. The old women were beside themselves between laughter and prayers. Andeng forgot that her sinigang had boiled over three times, spilling the soup and putting out the fire. The only one who could say nothing was Maria Clara.
Ibarra was uninjured, while the pilot had only a slight scratch on his arm. “I owe my life to you,” said the latter to Ibarra, who was wrapping himself up in blankets and cloths. The pilot’s voice seemed to have a note of sadness in it.
“You are too daring,” answered Ibarra. “Don’t tempt fate again.”
“If you had not come up again—” murmured the still pale and trembling Maria Clara.
“If I had not come up and you had followed me,” replied Ibarra, completing the thought in his own way, “in the bottom of the lake, I should still have been with my family!” He had not forgotten that there lay the bones of his father.
The old women did not want to visit the other corral but wished to return, saying that the day had begun inauspiciously and that many more accidents might occur. “All because we didn’t hear mass,” sighed one.
“But what accident has befallen us, ladies?” asked Ibarra. “The cayman seems to have been the only unlucky one.”
“All of which proves,” concluded the ex-student of theology, “that in all its sinful life this unfortunate reptile has never attended mass—at least, I’ve never seen him among the many other caymans that frequent the church.”
So the boats were turned in the direction of the other corral and Andeng had to get her sinigang ready again. The day was now well advanced, with a fresh breeze blowing. The waves curled up behind the body of the cayman, raising “mountains of foam whereon the smooth, rich sunlight glitters,” as the poet says. The music again resounded; Iday played on the harp, while the men handled the accordions and guitars with greater or less skill. The prize-winner was Albino, who actually scratched the instruments, getting out of tune and losing the time every moment or else forgetting it and changing to another tune entirely different.
The second corral was visited with some misgivings, as many expected to find there the mate of the dead cayman, but nature is ever a jester, and the nets came up full at each haul. Aunt Isabel superintended the sorting of the fish and ordered that some be left in the trap for decoys. “It’s not lucky to empty the corral completely,” she concluded.
Then they made their way toward the shore near the forest of old trees that belonged to Ibarra. There in the shade by the clear waters of the brook, among the flowers, they ate their breakfast under improvised canopies. The space was filled with music while the smoke from the fires curled up in slender wreaths. The water bubbled cheerfully in the hot dishes as though uttering sounds of consolation, or perchance of sarcasm and irony, to the dead fishes. The body of the cayman writhed about, sometimes showing its torn white belly and again its speckled greenish back, while man, Nature’s favorite, went on his way undisturbed by what the Brahmins and vegetarians would call so many cases of fratricide.
1 The chinela, the Philippine slipper, is a soft leather sole, heelless, with only a vamp, usually of plush or velvet, to hold it on.—TR.
2 “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” The words inscribed over the gate of Hell: Dante’s Inferno, III, 9.—TR.