Fiction

Voyager, Jose Dalisay's Short Stories Collection, Was Provoked by the Assassination of Ninoy Aquino

Read an entry from Jose Dalisay's latest anthology of short stories Voyager and Other Fictions.
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Author’s note: I began writing “Voyager” in 1983 as my outraged response to the assassination of Sen. Ninoy Aquino; I thought that dating this piece to 1883 would make that clear. And then—as often happens with well-intentioned propaganda—I hit a wall in the plot and didn’t complete the story (by this time practically a short novel) until eleven years later in 1994, on a fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland, where I suddenly saw in my mind’s eye how the situation could be resolved. In this 2,500-word excerpt, our protagonist—a Spanish public-security official in colonial Manila named Nervez—is being asked by his old boss Sr. Farolan to take on a special mission: assassinating a known rebel returning from Hong Kong aboard a ship called the Sta. Lucia.

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A FEW DAYS before my departure, my padrino—he who had apprised me of the job and, I was sure, had made some arrangements for me—dropped in on his old flunky at the shop. I was busy with the inventory, which I was reviewing in detail with the young man who had been recruited to replace me, but it would have been sheer rudeness to refuse Sr. Farolan’s invitation to coffee and cakes in a place he knew. It was a ten-minute stroll away and we could be back within the hour.

He was plain Sr. Farolan now, an ex-soldier like I was, though older by a good twenty years. We had never been particularly close at the time that I worked in the Department; he was much too high up the ladder for familiarities with my sort. He was the Governor-General’s man in the Department, liaising between the Palace and our office elsewhere in Intramuros. He was the chief vetter in the organization; security, to him, began with loyalty. His own unshakable loyalty to the headman was well known and well rewarded. He retired earlier than I did; since then he was rumored to have amassed a fortune in assorted holdings along the riverfront and remained a close personal adviser of the Governor-General on delicate political and business matters. He sold protection, I was certain of it, not personally, but through such pliable juniors as I was—or, rather, as I was not. I had scruples about such things; I felt that I owed it to my mother to prove myself with as much honesty as a farm boy could with a plow. That was why I had been surprised to be the object of his solicitude. In the few times that I had had occasion to deal with him—mainly to report on the progress of certain cases of interest to the Man—I had actually felt that he disliked me; I thought it had something to do with my origins and the long way I had come from them. But well, I thought, seeing him with his cane at the door of my shop, maybe time had changed all that. The old boys were looking after their own.

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“You were always dependable,” Farolan said as we walked. Then he recited details of the smaller but more colorful cases I had worked on—the case of the stolen Virgin, the case of the ambushed harlequin, the case of the wayward Ivatan—and I wondered if he was emphasizing my ability or the pettiness of my erstwhile concerns.

He said nothing more significant until we had reached the coffee-place, except for stray comments on the grime in the streets and how idyllic the city had appeared to him in the second quarter-century, as a young man freed from a winter. We sat down, and were served at a nod. I drummed my fingers on the table. Then suddenly a flush of yellowish paper was spread out on the linen, and the quickness of it startled me; but I looked at him and I was convinced that he was not being theatrical, but was simply being sharp.

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“You must have seen some of these before.” They were subversive pamphlets and flyers, pure incendiary material. One of them was illustrated with the figure of three priests being garroted by the Governor-General, an officer of the Guardia Civil, and a hawk-nosed prelate. The text was lucid, written in firm exhortative Spanish. I thought then that there was a good reason for rebellious passions to be about: over the past year, a mutiny of native workers had been crushed in the Cavite arsenal; the three hapless priests pictured in the pamphlet had indeed been publicly executed after a farcical trial; scores of sympathizers had been rounded up; and those whose lives were spared faced either long prison terms or exile in the Marianas.

My own feelings about these developments were uncomfortably mixed. I deplored excessive harshness and would have none of it myself; I felt that I had outgrown violence, which I saw to be the failure of patience. But the prospect of losing the islands and our lives in them was intolerable, and I understood the need, at certain times, for that which we loved dearly or to which we had pledged vows of fealty to be punished for inconstancy. I was overcome with sadness at every confession of treason I extracted from the Indio, in those times that I assisted in a political case. I preferred the interrogation of common criminals; the poor creatures had large hands and small brains and basically could not and did not appreciate sedition.

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The coffee was rich: black, strong, and sweet. Farolan scooped the rebel literature up to make way for the biscuits.

“We have reliable information,” he said, “that this rubbish, for obvious reasons, is being written and published abroad. It’s being brought in by a system of couriers.”

That was possible. The city was undergoing a period of terror under Izquierdo and it would have been extremely difficult to print such materials locally without one or another of our informant-friends among the merchants inviting our attention to the printing-house. I was more intrigued by the mention of couriers; it suggested definite identities, people to start with.

“There’s a band of rich young Indio asses in Barcelona and Madrid who can’t stir up enough trouble in the coffeeshops. They spend their time and their mothers’ money whoring, striking fencing poses, and collecting rumors in the mail. Rumors which, with a liberal dose of their high learning, are repackaged and re-exported right back to their credulous compatriots. Bestias cargados de oro, and the lowest ingrates you ever saw! If I ever have them shot it won’t be for treason but for mischief, it’s all they’re worth.” Farolan’s chin trembled as he spoke these words; and then a calmness returned to him, and he took up my question about the couriers with more assurance.

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“The couriers, yes, we’re sure of them. Apparently they come in from everywhere, but there’s a route or two they favor, where the courier’s a more or less regular traveller. We know one of them. We know who. We had to do some backtracking.” Farolan shrugged; the gesture probably cost a few lives. “We’ve found people to testify to the fact that one Sr. Meliton Gimenez is in the thick of this business. No, you won’t recognize thhe name, he’s just a boy, a very foolish boy. The family owns some land in Talavera, and they’re doing very well, I hear, in sugar. But the boy’s on his own. Have you ever been to Hong Kong?”

“No.”

“That’s where he works, if you could call what he does working. Quite a character, Meliton Gimenez. They tried to make a lawyer of him years ago and gave him a ticket to Europe when our own Dominicans gave up on him. So he went off on his Grand Tour but I don’t think he ever finished, his baccalaureate I mean. He took up the brush instead, and he’s been painting ever since, although I’m told he hardly sells apart from an odd portrait or seascape, and that with not a little help from his tongue. I’ve taken the trouble of a visit to the house, you know, on the pretext of an interest in sugar, and I was shown a few of the prodigal son’s—eh, creative restitutions—not too proudly, I’d say. They’re right, he’s an awful painter.”

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Farolan was a step ahead of me; that was what I would have done myself—do some background work on the subject, if he proved important enough; it saved the trouble of having to crack a person for simple answers, and it was often enjoyable besides. I thought again that it was something I could have done myself, and that my senior had taken up the spadework for the exercise.

“So how does he make his living?”

“Any which way. I’m told that on the side our boy deals in gold and other negotiable objects—buys a little and sells a little there. It makes good sense, too. There’s a mint of gold to be made just now on the Chinese market, if you’re reasonably sharp. The mandarins are coughing up their guts for a whiff of the old poppy, and anybody who’s ever profited from any war is having a ball dealing within and without the Empire. So. I think Gimenez finds Hong Kong terribly kind to him. I wish he’d stay there, but he doesn’t, and now he’s got himself into a fine mess with us.”

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“The pamphlets—”

“Yes, the pamphlets.” Farolan took one out and pretended to study it. “Gimenez has been bringing them in, the three or four times he’s come home these past two years. Of course he’s only one of quite a few others, but for sheer volume alone I daresay he’s the cheekiest of the lot. Apparently he doesn’t even bother to hide the stuff. Since he’s a non-commercial traveller our customs people haven’t been looking into his personal effects too closely. Either that, or a bribe’s been put on someone, we’re still investigating. Whatever. Within a week of Gimenez’s arrival a flood of subversive propaganda hits the streets, and our Governor-General flies into a rage. It’s true, I’ve even checked the dates and everything. I’m convinced the boy’s our man.” Farolan sounded and looked anxious that I would disbelieve him. His earnestness, I thought, was really unnecessary; it was beneath him.

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“Why does he do it?”

“I don’t know.” And then:  “You know the brand of rot that’s gone to some of even the noblest heads in Europe.” Directly at my eyes:  “I’m happier to be here now, Nervez. Here we can still do something. Anarchy must never contaminate these shores!” Anarchy, of course, already did, but Farolan seemed intent on hanging its awesome yoke on the shoulders of someone who seemed little more to me than another terribly misguided rogue.

“Most respectfully, Capitan,” I said, lapsing into an earlier relationship, “all we have on this person, from what you’ve told me, appears to be circumstantial.”

“There were witnesses. They gave us his name.” He paused, and suddenly I realized what he was going to say. “We lost them.”

“They escaped?”

“No,” he said almost pridefully, but just as quickly the feeling ebbed. “Some fool overtaxed them. I should have called you in earlier.”

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“But their testimony—”

“Can be perpetuated if need be, it’s a fine legal point, a magistrate’s problem,” he cut in impatiently. “It isn’t important. The thing is, we have Gimenez now. Or, rather, we should, in a few weeks’ time. He’s due to come out of Hong Kong next month. His sister Beatriz told me that, and I’ve no reason to doubt her. I even think she rather dislikes him.”

I was beginning to see the clarity of it all, what Farolan’s visit and Gimenez were supposed to mean to me. Despite my disgust over the all-too-familiar manner by which we lost vital witnesses, my professional interest had been revived; it felt pleasurable though vaguely obscene, as though I had been caught with an involuntary erection. I could anticipate Farolan’s scheme:  when he told me that Gimenez invariably took the Sta. Lucia on his trips home, the last piece of the puzzle fell into place. We were being set up against each other. I would be instructed to tag the boy and establish the evidence of his guilt; and then, quite possibly, be the arresting officer and chief state witness myself, although the former was technically unfeasible, as I was retired. All the same I would have the role of Judas, and oddly enough, after the lay-off, the job appealed to me. It was a small favor to repay Farolan with for the shipboard appointment, even if that might have been another of his fabrications; in any event I was determined to bring verity into it, and verve.

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“It’s my impression,” Farolan continued, “that the family knows about him—about his nefarious doings, I mean—but that they don’t care too much for his notions, themselves. After all they have a tidy business going of their own. Of course that doesn’t make them any less his family, and any less at guilt. I wish they all hang in a row, time comes. But it’s just a thought, and they suspect nothing of us. We’ve done nothing to alarm them about their boy.”

“They would have heard about your witnesses.”

“A stevedore and two delivery boys? They were crossing the Pasig in a bad spot. We had two or three capsizings there, last year, and you can imagine the ghastly injuries that watersnakes and crocodiles can cause. Come off it, Nervez, we enjoy the professional aspects of these things, we dream about them, detail by detail, like clockwork.... Besides, the beasts die every day, and a proud family like the Gimenezes couldn’t care less if their own coachman caught the fever and died on them, except if it happened on a Sunday, in which case the inconvenience would be frightful, don’t you think?”

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That was true; it was a pet notion of mine and of many other true-born Spaniards that Sr. Farolan was playing to:  if you left the Indios to themselves they would promptly aggravate each other to death, chiefly by their pretensions to high culture. I did not dispute the possibility that a few of them like Meliton Gimenez could imbibe some of the true substance through study and constant exposure abroad; but you could transfer cognac to an empty vinegar bottle, and it still would be cognac, and the bottle would still be a vinegar bottle. Culture was something that grew out of art, and nobly shed blood, and the holy dust of time—this last one most of all, the legacy of the faithful. That was what the Gimenezes and their social cohorts could never understand. Another hundred years would not yield a Cordoba in all the land, whose beauty was in the primitive. It mattered more to me that I was born on a Spanish farm than in a palace in Malate.

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“We need your help to stop this man,” Sr. Farolan said. “Of course it would all be in an unofficial capacity, but considering your circumstances I’m sure that you can find a way of fitting everything within your normal duties as a maritime security officer.”

“I understand,” I said, but he seemed doubtful of it. He said nothing and I felt uncomfortable; I found something to ask. “What if he doesn’t show up, or what if he decides to take another ship?” That would disappoint me very much.

“Don’t worry about the other ships, just worry about this one,” Farolan said. Everything we’ve learned about him tells us he’ll be there. If he isn’t then there’ll be another time and another plan, and you’ll have saved yourself the trouble of this job.” Farolan spread his hands out on the table. “Kill him.”

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Voyager and Other Fictions, a collection of short stories by Jose Dalisay, is available at National Book Store

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