High up on the slope of the mountain near a roaring stream a hut built on the gnarled logs hides itself among the trees. Over its kogon thatch clambers the branching gourd-vine, laden with flowers and fruit. Deer antlers and skulls of wild boar, some with long tusks, adorn this mountain home, where lives a Tagalog family engaged in hunting and cutting firewood.
In the shade of a tree the grandsire was making brooms from the fibers of palm leaves, while a young woman was placing eggs, limes, and some vegetables in a wide basket. Two children, a boy and a girl, were playing by the side of another, who, pale and sad, with large eyes and a deep gaze, was seated on a fallen tree-trunk. In his thinned features we recognize Sisa’s son, Basilio, the brother of Crispin.
“When your foot gets well,” the little girl was saying to him, “we’ll play hide-and-seek. I’ll be the leader.”
“You’ll go up to the top of the mountain with us,” added the little boy, “and drink deer blood with lime-juice and you’ll get fat, and then I’ll teach you how to jump from rock to rock above the torrent.”
Basilio smiled sadly, stared at the sore on his foot, and then turned his gaze toward the sun, which shone resplendently.
“Sell these brooms,” said the grandfather to the young woman, “and buy something for the children, for tomorrow is Christmas.”
“Firecrackers, I want some firecrackers!” exclaimed the boy.
“I want a head for my doll,” cried the little girl, catching hold of her sister’s tapis.
“And you, what do you want?” the grandfather asked Basilio, who at the question arose laboriously and approached the old man.
“Sir,” he said, “I’ve been sick more than a month now, haven’t I?”
“Since we found you lifeless and covered with wounds, two moons have come and gone. We thought you were going to die.”
“May God reward you, for we are very poor,” replied Basilio. “But now that tomorrow is Christmas I want to go to the town to see my mother and my little brother. They will be seeking for me.”
“But, my son, you’re not yet well, and your town is far away. You won’t get there by midnight.”
“That doesn’t matter, sir. My mother and my little brother must be very sad. Every year we spend this holiday together. Last year the three of us had a whole fish to eat. My mother will have been mourning and looking for me.”
“You won’t get to the town alive, boy! Tonight we’re going to have chicken and wild boar’s meat. My sons will ask for you when they come from the field.”
“You have many sons while my mother has only us two. Perhaps she already believes that I’m dead! Tonight I want to give her a pleasant surprise, a Christmas gift, a son.”
The old man felt the tears springing up into his eyes, so, placing his hands on the boy’s head, he said with emotion: “You’re like an old man! Go, look for your mother, give her the Christmas gift—from God, as you say. If I had known the name of your town I would have gone there when you were sick. Go, my son, and may God and the Lord Jesus go with you. Lucia, my granddaughter, will go with you to the nearest town.”
“What! You’re going away?” the little boy asked him. "Down there are soldiers and many robbers. Don’t you want to see my firecrackers? Boom, boom, boom!”
“Don’t you want to play hide-and-seek?” asked the little girl. “Have you ever played it? Surely there’s nothing any more fun than to be chased and hide yourself?”
Basilio smiled, but with tears in his eyes, and caught up his staff. “I’ll come back soon,” he answered. “I’ll bring my little brother, you’ll see him and play with him. He’s just about as big as you are.”
“Does he walk lame, too?” asked the little girl. “Then we’ll make him ‘it’ when we play hide-and-seek.”
“Don’t forget us,” the old man said to him. “Take this dried meat as a present to your mother.”
The children accompanied him to the bamboo bridge swung over the noisy course of the stream. Lucia made him support himself on her arm, and thus they disappeared from the children’s sight, Basilio walking along nimbly in spite of his bandaged leg.
The north wind whistled by, making the inhabitants of San Diego shiver with cold. It was Christmas Eve and yet the town was wrapped in gloom. Not a paper lantern hung from the windows nor did a single sound in the houses indicate the rejoicing of other years.
In the house of Capitan Basilio, he and Don Filipo—for the misfortunes of the latter had made them friendly—were standing by a window-grating and talking, while at another were Sinang, her cousin Victoria, and the beautiful Iday, looking toward the street.
The waning moon began to shine over the horizon, illumining the clouds and making the trees and houses east long, fantastic shadows.
“Yours is not a little good fortune, to get off free in these times!” said Capitan Basilio to Don Filipo. “They’ve burned your books, yes, but others have lost more.”
A woman approached the grating and gazed into the interior. Her eyes glittered, her features were emaciated, her hair loose and dishevelled. The moonlight gave her a weird aspect.
“Sisal” exclaimed Don Filipo in surprise. Then turning to Capitan Basilio, as the madwoman ran away, he asked, “Wasn’t she in the house of a physician? Has she been cured?”
Capitan Basilio smiled bitterly. “The physician was afraid they would accuse him of being a friend of Don Crisostomo’s, so he drove her from his house. Now she wanders about again as crazy as ever, singing, harming no one, and living in the woods.”
“What else has happened in the town since we left it? I know that we have a new curate and another alferez.”
“These are terrible times, humanity is retrograding,” murmured Capitan Basilio, thinking of the past. “The day after you left they found the senior sacristan dead, hanging from a rafter in his own house. Padre Salvi was greatly affected by his death and took possession of all his papers. Ah, yes, the old Sage, Tasio, also died and was buried in the Chinese cemetery.”
“Poor old man!” sighed Don Filipo. “What became of his books?”
“They were burned by the pious, who thought thus to please God. I was unable to save anything, not even Cicero’s works. The gobernadorcillo did nothing to prevent it.”
Both became silent. At that moment the sad and melancholy song of the madwoman was heard.
“Do you know when Maria Clara is to be married?” Iday asked Sinang.
“I don’t know,” answered the latter. “I received a letter from her but haven’t opened it for fear of finding out. Poor Crisostomo!”
“They say that if it were not for Linares, they would hang Capitan Tiago, so what was Maria Clara going to do?” observed Victoria.
A boy limped by, running toward the plaza, whence came the notes of Sisa’s song. It was Basilio, who had found his home deserted and in ruins. After many inquiries he had only learned that his mother was insane and wandering about the town—of Crispin not a word.
Basilio choked back his tears, stifled any expression of his sorrow, and without resting had started in search of his mother. On reaching the town he was just asking about her when her song struck his ears. The unhappy boy overcame the trembling in his limbs and ran to throw himself into his mother’s arms.
The madwoman left the plaza and stopped in front of the house of the new alferez. Now, as formerly, there was a sentinel before the door, and a woman’s head appeared at the window, only it was not the Medusa’s but that of a comely young woman: alferez and unfortunate are not synonymous terms.
Sisa began to sing before the house with her gaze fixed on the moon, which soared majestically in the blue heavens among golden clouds. Basilio saw her, but did not dare to approach’ her. Walking back and forth, but taking care not to get near the barracks, he waited for the time when she would leave that place.
The young woman who was at the window listening attentively to the madwoman’s song ordered the sentinel to bring her inside, but when Sisa saw the soldier approach her and heard his voice she was filled with terror and took to flight at a speed of which only a demented person is capable. Basilio, fearing to lose her, ran after her, forgetful of the pains in his feet.
“Look how that boy’s chasing the madwoman!” indignantly exclaimed a woman in the street. Seeing that he continued to pursue her, she picked up a stone and threw it at him, saying, “Take that! It’s a pity that the dog is tied up!”
Basilio felt a blow on his head, but paid no attention to it as he continued running. Dogs barked, geese cackled, several windows opened to let out curious faces but quickly closed again from fear of another night of terror.
Soon they were outside of the town. Sisa began to moderate her flight, but still a great distance separated her from her pursuer.
“Mother!” he called to her when he caught sight of her. Scarcely had the madwoman heard his voice when she again took to flight.
“Mother, it’s I!” cried the boy in desperation, but the madwoman did not heed him, so he followed panting. They had now passed the cultivated fields and were near the wood; Basilio saw his mother enter it and he also went in. The bushes and shrubs, the thorny vines and projecting roots of trees, hindered the movements of both. The son followed his mother’s shadowy form as it was revealed from time to time by the moonlight that penetrated through the foliage and into the open spaces. They were in the mysterious wood of the Ibarra family.
The boy stumbled and fell several times, but rose again, each time without feeling pain. All his soul was centered in his eyes, following the beloved figure. They crossed the sweetly murmuring brook where sharp thorns of bamboo that had fallen on the sand at its margin pierced his bare feet, but he did not stop to pull them out.
To his great surprise he saw that his mother had plunged into the thick undergrowth and was going through the wooden gateway that opened into the tomb of the old Spaniard at the foot of the balete. Basilio tried to follow her in, but found the gate fastened. The madwoman defended the entrance with her emaciated arms and disheveled head, holding the gate shut with all her might.
“Mother, it’s I, it’s I! I’m Basilio, your son!” cried the boy as he let himself fall weakly.
But the madwoman did not yield. Bracing herself with her feet on the ground, she offered an energetic resistance. Basilio beat the gate with his fists, with his Mood-stained head, he wept, but in vain. Painfully he arose and examined the wall, thinking to scale it, but found no way to do so. He then walked around it and noticed that a branch of the fateful balete was crossed with one from another tree. This he climbed and, his filial love working miracles, made his way from branch to branch to the balete, from which he saw his mother still holding the gate shut with her head.
The noise made by him among the branches attracted Sisa’s attention. She turned and tried to run, but her son, letting himself fall from the tree, caught her in his arms and covered her with kisses, losing consciousness as he did so.
Sisa saw his blood-stained forehead and bent over him. Her eyes seemed to start from their sockets as she peered into his face. Those pale features stirred the sleeping cells of her brain, so that something like a spark of intelligence flashed up in her mind and she recognized her son. With a terrible cry she fell upon the insensible body of the boy, embracing and kissing him. Mother and son remained motionless.
When Basilio recovered consciousness he found his mother lifeless. He called to her with the tenderest names, but she did not awake. Noticing that she was not even breathing, he arose and went to the neighboring brook to get some water in a banana leaf, with which to rub the pallid face of his mother, but the madwoman made not the least movement and her eyes remained closed.
Basilio gazed at her in terror. He placed his ear over her heart, but the thin, faded breast was cold, and her heart no longer beat. He put his lips to hers, but felt no breathing. The miserable boy threw his arms about the corpse and wept bitterly.
The moon gleamed majestically in the sky, the wandering breezes sighed, and down in the grass the crickets chirped. The night of light and joy for so many children, who in the warm bosom of the family celebrate this feast of sweetest memories—the feast which commemorates the first look of love that Heaven sent to earth—this night when in all Christian families they eat, drink, dance, sing, laugh, play, caress, and kiss one another—this night, which in cold countries holds such magic for childhood with its traditional pine-tree covered with lights, dolls, candies, and tinsel, whereon gaze the round, staring eyes in which innocence alone is reflected—this night brought to Basilio only orphanhood. Who knows but that perhaps in the home whence came the taciturn Padre Salvi children also played, perhaps they sang
“La Nochebuena se viene,
La Nochebuena se va.”1
For a long time the boy wept and moaned. When at last he raised his head he saw a man standing over him, gazing at the scene in silence.
“Are you her son?” asked the unknown in a low voice.
The boy nodded.
“What do you expect to do?”
“In the cemetery?”
“I haven’t any money and, besides, the curate wouldn’t allow it.”
“If you would help me—”
“I’m very weak,” answered the unknown as he sank slowly to the ground, supporting himself with both hands. “I’m wounded. For two days I haven’t eaten or slept. Has no one come here tonight?”
The man thoughtfully contemplated the attractive features of the boy, then went on in a still weaker voice, “Listen! I, too, shall be dead before the day comes. Twenty paces from here, on the other side of the brook, there is a big pile of firewood. Bring it here, make a pyre, put our bodies upon it, cover them over, and set fire to the whole—fire, until we are reduced to ashes!”
Basilio listened attentively.
“Afterwards, if no one comes, dig here. You will find a lot of gold and it will all be yours. Take it and go to school.”
The voice of the unknown was becoming every moment more unintelligible. “Go, get the firewood. I want to help you.”
As Basilio moved away, the unknown turned his face toward the east and murmured, as though praying:
“I die without seeing the dawn brighten over my native land! You, who have it to see, welcome it—and forget not those who have fallen during the night!”
He raised his eyes to the sky and his lips continued to move, as if uttering a prayer. Then he bowed his head and sank slowly to the earth.
Two hours later Sister Rufa was on the back veranda of her house making her morning ablutions in order to attend mass. The pious woman gazed at the adjacent wood and saw a thick column of smoke rising from it. Filled with holy indignation, she knitted her eyebrows and exclaimed:
“What heretic is making a clearing on a holy day? That’s why so many calamities come! You ought to go to purgatory and see if you could get out of there, savage!”
1 A Christmas carol: “Christmas night is coming, Christmas night is going.”—TR.