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by Rosario Cruz Lucero ᄃ

—Bisan ano ka lawig sang prusisyon
Sa simbahan man guihapon padulong.

IT was a plague of locusts. Fray Montano should have seen the signs. There had been three
weeks of an unusually dry spell during the locusts’ mating season, and the rains that might have
controlled the size of their population had not fallen. Then just when the locusts should have
come swarming into the kaingin fields, they had not and he should have known why. They were
making love like locusts. The people were coming into his church and confessing that they had
made love like locusts the night before and the night before that. They had, in fact, been making
love like locusts every night for the past week.
Once, many years ago, when he was new to this mission village, there had been a pestilence
of frogs but it had stopped with what seemed to him inexplicable suddenness, until he discovered
why when the whole village started coming to him for absolution because they were making love
like frogs.
He had admonished them over and over again that there was only one position that God had
intended human beings to do it in. So what if the summer months would go on well into what
should have been the rainy months of June and July? If such vagaries of the weather would bring
in a horde of bayawaks to attack the village chickens, that would be God’s will and nature was
not to be tampered with, certainly not with perversions like the bayawak position or the frog
position and now this-the locust position!
The silence that followed his counsel told him that it had come too late. They had already
made love like bayawaks. They had done the mating dance, navel to navel and pelvis to pelvis,
before he had come and this was probably the reason why he had been sent here. These people
had driven his predecessor Fray Duertas desperate with loneliness and suffocating with envy
with all the hopping around they were doing all over the pueblo. That was why the poor man had
finally asked to be reassigned elsewhere—anywhere on the island where beasts’ and people’s
lives were not inextricably intertwined—there to wait out what was left of his life with
nightmares of frogs making love like locusts, and bayawaks making love like frogs, and locusts
making love like bayawaks.
But the worst nightmare of all, because it was not forbidden but only to be endured, was
when he dreamed that they were making love like people.
And so, a month before Fray Duerta was to leave Puerto Buyonan for Puerto Minuluan, Fray
Montano arrived and he was frightened to see all the indios—hundreds of them—lining the
riverbank to welcome him. Church bells, which Fray Duerta had had shipped to this island as
soon as he had started building the church, were ringing, and the indios were singing a humn
only they could recognize in voices that God had not created for the Gregorian chant.
Fray Montano had come from Siguenz, Spain, to this island of 31,000 inhabitants fully
expecting to live the hermit’s life. The bishop in Manila, to whom Fray Montano had paid his
respects before he was to take the boat to Negros, had painted a picture of an island with indios
already pacified, brooks and streams running over moss-covered stones, caves and undergrowth
whose resident deities had already been driven away by Spanish encantos.
“Our malignos, duendes, and cafres,” the bishop assured him, “have taken over as surely as
the friars have exposed their shaman for the fraud that she is.”
While the bishop had meant Fray Montano to see all the civilizing work and conquista
spiritual that still needed to be done on that savage island, what Fray Montano had envisioned
instead was the perfect setting for the ascetic life he had always been fated to live. Ever since he
was six, when he had dreamed that he would die at the impossible age of 98, he knew God was
calling him. He saw himself kneeling on stones in the tropical sun to atone for the world’s sins;
he would fell but one tree to build his little prayer hut of thatch and wood; he would lie naked on
the grass at night and expose himself to leeches that would cleanse his soul of all its impurities.
There was much work to be done on himself before he would even deem himself worthy of
saving other people’s souls.
“Laziness, drunkenness and lust,” Fray Duertas stressed to him, ticking each off with his
finger. “These are your Enemies. Never let Them take over these indios’ souls, although I must
warn you they are so easily afflicted. So keep them busy, keep them working. Next thing you
know they’ll be doing it like snails. Then where will your mission be? Clear the forests, build
roads and bridges, plant fruit trees. That church still needs a nave and a taller belfry. I tell you, if
that last pestilence hadn’t weakened my heart...” And his voice trailed off, leaving in its wake
dreams of stone houses standing in colonial splendor around a magnificent church with
buttresses, apses and spires soaring to the sky, defying the typhoons and earthquakes that were
this island’s curse.
Fray Montano had no desire to match Duertas’ nervous energy, for it would have been a futile
ambition. Already, composos of this stone fortress that Fray Duertas had just completed, which
would house the most powerful Poon in the world, were being sung around the island, from the
coastal village of Hunob-Hunob in the north to the mountain fastness of Kanlaon in the south.
When a traveling manugcomposo took it to a tabuan, where the people converged to barter their
goods, another one would pick it up and take it to the next tabuan, where the people converged to
barter their goods, another one would pick it up and take it to the next tabuan, where Duertas’
feat took on even more miraculous proportions.
During the months before Montano had come, the six other frailes on the island had visited,
and even those as far away as Luzon had begun writing to inquire, because they wanted to know
how Duertas had managed to solve the most basic architectural problem that had them sticking to
wood-and-nipa churches. How was Duertas able to build such a heavy structure on such shifty
soil in this typhoon-and-earthquake-ravaged land?
After giving several private lectures on it to these priests, Duertas finally decided he might as
well publish the sketches and the secret of his engineering principle. He sent his manuscript to
the bishop for the imprimatur, and this was the primary reason why he was eagerly awaiting Fray
Montano’s arrival. Fray Montano was handcarrying the bishop’s reply, contained in a sealed
But Fray Montano was startled to witness Duertas suddenly fall on his knees after reading the
bishop’s letter, beating his breast and muttering ejaculations that Fray Montano could only hope
was the litany to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. Fray Montano picked up the letter that
Duertas had let drop to the floor and read it.
“Your request for permission to publish the enclosed manuscript is denied,” the bishop’s
letter began, “on the grounds that it contains several obscene words and tends to conjure indecent
imagery. I enjoin you to devote your days instead to building roads and bridges and your nights
to prayer and self-flagellation, for an idle mind is the devil’s playground.
“It has also come to my attention,” the bishop’s letter continued, “that dictionaries of this
archipelago’s many languages are already being published by other frailes, but there is none on
Hiligaina. Does your flock know its catechism, the commandments, the teachings of the church?
Can they name the seven deadly sins and all other vices that these spawn if you do not know the
words in their language to point these out to them? Are you doing anything, Fray Duertas, about
this sorry dereliction to spiritual duty?”
On his last day at Pueblo Buyonan, as he was turning the parish over to Fray Montano, Fray
Duertas thrust the offending manuscript into the younger fraile’s hands and urged him, “Burn it.
It is the work of the devil and I have allowed myself to be his plaything. Even now, I am still
struggling against the sin of pride, as I cannot bring myself to destroy it with my own hands.
Please do this thing for me...”
As Duertas stood on the boat and waved to the hundreds of chanting indios lining the
riverbank, his church bells pealed their farewell.
Fray Montano was not surprised when, soon enough, composos began to reach his pueblo
about the wondrous ways in which Fray Duertas, from his new parish of Pueblo Minuluan, was
making people fly through limestone crags, over bodies of water, and under the green canopy of
jungles—all without the aid of the monsala scarf, betel nut chew, or the busaw’s golden strand of
hair that were the vehicles by which the indios’ grandparents had once transported themselves
from one place to another in an instant.
Montano knew enough of the indios by now to guess that, as soon as Fray Duertas had
docked at the riverbank of Pueblo Minuluan, he would have inevitably discovered that indios
were everywhere the same, and whatever had plagued him in Pueblo Buyonan would pursue him
all the way to Pueblo Minuluan. Hence, to protect his heart from more nightmares, Padre Duertas
was now applying the indios’ energy and engineering expertise to clearing the surrounding
forests and constructing what was to be the first road on the island

For a long time, Fray Duertas’ architectural manuscript lay deep in the drawer of his
escritorio, where Fray Montano—everyday breaking his promise to Fray Duertas that he would
burn the manuscript—kept it hidden away from his own prying eyes, although he was sorely
curious to know what obscenities they were that served as the very foundation of Pueblo
Buyonan’s church building.
But finally, Fray Montano found a reason to consult the manuscript. Bird shit was dropping
on people’s heads in church every Sunday and no one could find the birds; nests from which
these droppings were originating. How could he find these without looking at the church’s whole
Fray Montano was staring up at the church’s rafter one afternoon when an indio came to him,
salakot in hand. This indio had been one of Fray Duertas’ construction workers on the church.
Before he came to settle in Pueblo Buyonan, he had been part of a traveling group that went from
tabuan to tabuan, bartering entertainment for food, clothing and a few reales. His specialty was a
balancing act on a length of bamboo placed end to end on a pair of rocks. By the time he got to
the middle of the bamboo pole to do his somersaults, he would be so unnerved by the people’s
jeering that he would fall to the ground three feet below. This was an island where people
crossed crocodile-infested rivers on lengths of bamboo everyday, so where was the wonder in
He became known as Pedro Latay and everywhere he went, children teased him with bamboo
riddles like: Nahadluk ka sa isa; Sa tatlo wala. One day, his itinerant group of entertainers was
performing in Pueblo Buyonan when Fray Duertas had looked out of his convent window into
the plaza to see what the hooting and howling was all about, and he espied Pedro’s pathetic act as
a bamboo walker. The fraile then decided to put the poor indio’s balancing skills to better use.
Thus was Pedro Latay recruited as a construction worker for the church, and he was tasked with
attaching the church’s ceiling beams and roof.
Now he had a proposal for Fray Montano.
“Padre, I think I can help you find the source of the iput,” he began helpfully. “I remember
that some of the ceiling beams have natural niches on them and I’m sure these are where the
birds’ nests are. I’ll be able to spot them if I can look at the whole design of the church.”
Fray Montano shook his head and replied, “No, Pedro.” He offered no explanation, for he
had found that in this town, the truth sprouted many heads, and whatever explanation he gave
would be as valid as the many versions it would give birth to overnight over bamboo cups of
But the people were staying away more and more from the church, in spite of his
protestations from the pulpit, for they were an obsessively clean race who liked to bathe instantly
at the sign of any uncleanness on their person. They were now confronted with a dilemma, since
they had taken it upon their heads that to bathe right after Sunday mass was an affront to God,
because it would be treating Him like dirt. This belief took firm root when, on one Sunday, one
of them did not even wait for the Mass to end but, as soon as he felt the shit dropping on his
head, he jumped up with a whoop! and ran to the river, where he was instantly pulled under by
God’s angel of death. They found his bloated corpse three days later caught in the roots of the
mangrove trees.
Finally, Fray Montano decided that, to save the whole village from the sin against the third
commandment, he and one indio could break the sixth. He and Pedro held their breaths as he
gingerly turned the pages until he spotted the passage marked with a red underline by the
censor’s disapproving hand:
“The top layer of riverbank soil is all sand. But if we want our churches to be tall and
massive fortresses, these cannot be built on sand. In the case of the Buyonan Church, the bedrock
on which its foundation rests is 29 feet beneath. This means that hardwood piles 29 feet long
were driven all the way down to the bedrock. Hence, the grip of the sand on the whole length of
each pile is as important as having the pile rest on the bedrock. Just as a tightly clenched fist can
grip a quill, so the sand has a vise-like grip on each pile, thus assuring a solid foundation for the
church to be built on.”
Beside the text was a sketch of the hardwood pile thrusting through the sand and another
detailed sketch of the sand’s vise-like grip on a pile. The last few pages of the manuscript
included recipes for leche flan, yema, tocino del cielo, and other such sweets requiring inordinate
amounts of eggyolk, along with Fray Duertas’ advice that, because eggwhite was the ingredient
that made a powerful glue for the church’s stonewalls, the indias could then put the barrels of
superfluous eggyolk to commercial use.
So there it was at last! Henceforth, Fray Duertas would always be remembered as the fraile
who grew fat on the indios’ labor and who kept his virginity intact by distracting himself with his
vise-like grip on his pile and a fist tightly clenched around his quill—unless Fray Montano could
keep his colluding partner, the indio beside him, silent on what they had just read. Under pain of
the corporal punishment of flogging and three days without food and water in the stocks, plus the
spiritual punishment of everlasting fire and brimstone in the afterlife, Pedro made the promise to
Fray Montano that he would never divulge any of this.
He kept to his word, although this was not because he was afraid of any of Fray Montano’s
threats on his own person. Fray Montano had devised a much more effective method of ensuring
the indios’ meekness. Whenever any of them offended God, Fray Montano would stand on the
pulpit and paint a sorrowful picture of the bleak months of Divine Punishment in store for all of
them because of one indio’s betrayal of God’s trust. And so, when the next pestilence, epidemic,
flood, draught, or violent storm swept through the island days or weeks or months later, everyone
turned to glare at the sinner who had caused God’s wrath to fall on their collective heads.
“This,” Fray Montano would explain gently from the pulpit the following Sunday, “is how
we are all punished when one of us commits the sin of disobedience.”
This was why Pedro kept his lips tightly shut however much the others probed and pried and
cajoled. At every question, he firmly shook his head, self-righteous in his conviction that he was
sparing the island’s whole population the next, inevitable, natural catastrophe. But this was also
Pedro’s dream come true; he had never performed before an audience as riveted as the one he
now had. So, he allowed them to ply him with tuba so he would have an excuse to loosen his
tongue. Even then, he would only sing a loa that seemed merely tangential replies to their

Didto sa amon,
Banwa sang Buyonan
May nagtubo nga hilamon,
Maitum pa sa kugon
Sa tigpihak nga pampang,
Sa tunga may bubon
May naligo nga pari,
Patay sang nag-ahon.

Song, on this island, inexorably followed the law of accretion, and so Pedro’s stanza gave
birth to more stanzas, each more graphic than the last. Fray Duertas’ prowess on several levels
became the stuff of myth and legend. At nightfall, when the people gathered in their cabeza’s
house, they laughingly took turns singing the stanzas they already knew, and then improvised
and composed new ones that had pythons and pots, cashew nuts and cassava roots, vegetables
and fruits of a particular shape and size except the papaya, all standing as metaphor and
metonymy for Fray Duertas and his imagined exertions.
“What shall we do about all these bastos songs, Estrella?” Fray Montano asked his friend,
whom he consulted whenever indio exuberance stupefied him. Estrella was the village baylan.
She had finally consented to be baptized by Fray Duertas and her name changed to Estrella when
she realized that her herbs and healing prayers had no power over the strange diseases that this
white race had either brought in or released like sulfurous gases from the earth’s core: smallpox,
cholera, measles, malaria.
Strategic complicity was her way of life now. Whenever the epidemics struck, the fraile
blessed the sick with holy water while she danced over them in a trance, so that when the people
died by the hundreds, they had no idea whose curative method had failed.
Estrella was rubbing her hands with banaba leaves when he came upon her in her hut. Her
right hand was blotched and scarred from burns, the fingers permanently bent like an eagle’s
claws. But this was the hand that Fray Montano liked her to massage his aching head with,
because the burnt skin at the tips of those claws felt as smooth and delicate as silk. She bent over
him, massaging him, while whispering her pidgin Latin prayers over him: Jesus y salvo al sol,
Lobis igolis isindot mo kami, Eche laurente, eche colas, eche colorum amen. He knew she was
probably muttering curses on him but they had lived in wary harmony for years now and her
constant attempts to foil his mission to save the indios’ souls had become a natural part of their
“Let them sing their epics again,” she said. She sat on the floor with her maimed hand on one
knee and set to classifying her collection of herbs and roots with the other. The task gave her an
excuse not to look at him. This was what Fray Montano liked about her most. Duplicity did not
come naturally to her; the events of the times had only compelled it. “Either that or make them
sing church hymns every night during their drinking sprees.”
Fray Montano winced at the thought. He had tried to teach them the Gregorian chant during
his first year in the pueblo, simply because he had always thought that singing and religion
always went together. But the practice of music, only then did he realize, was not universal. Bel
canto, pianissimo and legato were of no meaning to them, for they all produced a sound from
deep in their crotch that squeezed its way up through the twists and turns of their small intestines,
vibrated through each web of their lungs, wound its way through their nasal passages and
exploded between tonsils that did not even quiver in surprise at the strength of the sound waves
crashing through.
He sighed and conceded defeat. “You’ll have to teach them your epics, then. Can you start
Estrella nodded and he knew she continued to look down at her herbs and roots so he would
not see her smile of triumph.
He would have liked to stay in her hut a little longer, for he liked to breathe in the tangy
infusion that she rubbed into her hair, a scent which mingled pleasantly with the dried aroma of
her herbs and roots. He wished he could burn her concoctions and use the ashes for his church
rituals, instead of incense, whose smoke stung his nose and clung to his hair and cassock. This
was the smell he carried with him all the time, much to his agony, especially when he was within
the convent, whose walls reeked of the fried goat’s meat that had been Fray Duertas’ daily diet,
and the briny smell that his servants exuded.
But of course Fray Montano’s business with Estrella was done here and it would not do for
the indios to think that he was staying so long because she was driving a hard bargain. The friar
and the baylan were known only to negotiate, never to converse. And always some deal was
struck with each of them thinking that he or she had gained the upper hand.
That night, Estrella sat on the floor of her hut, placed an herb-smoothened hand on one knee
and a claw on the other, and then commenced her magical incantation. Her Time stood still as her
voice painted pictures: of the three Buyungs of royal birth, of their hunt for wives who ruled the
different levels of the Hiligaina cosmos, of the great battle between them and their common
enemy Yawa, the god of darkness, whose wife they wanted to capture for the eldest prince,
Buyung Labaw Donggon. Estrella’s song traveled beyond the huts clustered around the church,
toward the isolated ones standing on mountain slopes that not even the tolling of the church bells
could reach, for her chanting was the kind of music that the great god Makagagahum had shaped
the indios’ voices for. It was strong and powerful so it could stir the diwatas from their hiding
places—the earth mounds where they had curled themselves into foetus positions, the depths of
caves where they had sulked at the people’s neglect, the tree trunks where they had gotten
themselves entangled in the vines for the past hundred years.
Estrella stopped to take a breath and found she could not go on. The Buyungs’ balangay
refused to fly from the seashore and meet the villainous Yawa in the clouds where they were
supposed to do battle, because it was waiting for an audience’s cheers to lift it from where it sat
like a dead tree stump. Were the Buyungs doing the right thing or not? They had no idea, as there
was no audience loudly taking sides, either exclaiming in approval or clucking in disapproval.
Buyung Labaw Donggon stood clutching his spear in mid-air but was not sure whether he had
the right to steal another god’s wife, especially as he already had two of his own. Did this
profound silence around him signify Accusation or Absolution?
For the people of the village, the time that stood still for Estrella while she chanted in her
trance crept with an excruciating slowness that had them making love like snails just to shut her
voice out. They had tried their best to sleep through Estrella’s confusing story that resolutely
denied gap, oblivion, and even the likelihood of its fictionality. In her story, scoundrels were
heroes and women were shape-shifters, and the scoundrels and shape-shifters battled each other,
and always the shape-shifters won with their power to hover over the scoundrels and frighten
them with a sound as of a thousand bees humming. None of it reminded them of anything, for
they could no longer hear their mothers’ voices trapped in their bone marrow. For these indios,
Bard and Bore had become one and the same.
Finally, thankfully, Estrella let them be and she fell into an exhausted sleep, for Baybayan,
the poetic muse to whom she had prayed for strength to sing her tale, was himself trapped in one
of the seven layers of the cosmos, where he had flung himself in a fit of jealous outrage over the
invasion of the white encantos. The diwatas, who had begun to seep through the cracks in trees
and rocks and earth, withdrew fearfully back to their hiding places. And so the night wore on, sad
and silent.
Fray Montano was wrestling with his own tangle of words well into dawn, the anguished
echo of Estrella’s epic having kept him up all night. He had taken to heart the bishop’s advice to
Fray Duertas that a Hiligaina-Spanish dictionary should be composed for purposes of
proselytism, for it gave him a good excuse to engage as minimally as possible in the project of
But Fray Montano found that Fray Duertas already had in fact the manuscript of an almost
comprehensive dictionary hidden away in his escritorio. Fray Duertas had probably been so
shaken by the bishop’s reprimand over his church design that he was no longer sure exactly
which of his dictionary entries might be offensive in the bishop’s eyes. He had concluded that his
dictionary was another devil’s playground, and so he had hidden it away in shame, vowing never
again to engage in any project involving the written word.
But the dictionary was missing several important words. Montano had discovered this after
one bawdy song about Duertas’ solitary contortions had wafted its way through his convent
window, and he wanted to know which parts of the human anatomy its words were referring to.
Duertas’ dictionary provided no explanation. But it would not do for the indios to know
something that Montano didn’t, for that would give them an excuse to exchange knowing looks
and impute different meanings to anything he said from the pulpit or the confessional.
Fray Montano was relieved to realize that he did not have to start a dictionary from the letter
a and only had to insert the words he needed to add to Duertas’ work. But as he proceeded, he
found that one word led on to another, and the hopping and jumping from one letter to another
separated by a sea of letters almost had him in tears. He had to compose a separate list of his own
words first, and this preliminary list would not be arranged alphabetically but would be
thematically classified: parts of the human anatomy, kitchen utensils, fruits, vegetables; and then
there were the parts of speech, especially the verbs.
As Montano compiled his vocabulary, he found more and more categories to divide the indio
language into. Words missing from Duertas’ dictionary were those which conjured images of
orifices, phalluses, attitudes of naughtiness, certain kinds of laughter, ways of eating and
drinking, positions of verticality, horizontality and perpendicularity, spirals and arrows, numbers
and games, weapons and tools, dryness and wetness. Duertas, in his censor’s zeal, had been far
from comprehensive, after all; and this was exactly what might have vindicated him in their
bishop’s eyes.
For the first time since he arrived on this island, Fray Montano was truly happy in his
solitude. As his list of words lengthened, the indios’ world began to manifest itself, and what had
been its daunting unpredictability became simply a matter of singular inevitability. Months
stretched into years as Montano worked at his dictionary and, as the pure fury of his
classifications rose around him, only the indios in their prescience knew that he was drowning in
waves of words that had lost their referents.
He ventured out of the convent only to hurry through confessions on Saturdays and mass on
Sundays—much to the indios’ delight—and did not see that his feet imprinted themselves more
and more deeply into the earth, because he was steadily growing corpulent in spite of his
complete disdain for food and all things material. In fact, he fasted four days a week, and since
he hardly knew what day of the week it was any more, there were weeks when his fasting days
ran into each other and he accumulated savings of fasting days enough to merit indulgence points
in excess of his purgatory time.
And yet his body kept manufacturing its own fat as steadily as his list of words shed their
referents. “Fray Botod”, the indios called him behind his back, and composos began to be sung
of the fat and lazy fraile of Pueblo Buyonan who spent his days sleeping in his convent, sleeping
through the Mass, sleeping in the confessional.
But Fray Montano, in fact, was now caught in a conundrum. Every night, his list of words for
the day haunted him and refused to let him sleep. They invaded his mind in words coupling like
dogs, jellyfish, lady-and-lordbugs, even papaya trees and the shrinking mimosa. He added nine
more strokes to his nightly ritual of self-flagellation and recited all the litanies to all the saints,
legendary and real. But the ejaculations only brought him images of liquid in various degrees of
density spurting from towers of ivory into vessels of gold. He forced his mind to dwell on
harmless things—but everything had lost its innocence. He could find no way of forgetting.
He finally found his solution when his sacristan, a young indio, came to him one day in the
confessional. “I have been playing with myself, Padre. I am so ashamed and so afraid. I have
begun to forget the answers to the catechism. I can now remember only seven of the ten
commandments; I lose the words of the Ave Maria and find them while I am praying the Padre
Nuestro; and so I forget how to go on with the Padre Nuestro...”
“One has got nothing to do with the other, hijo; playing with yourself and forgetting your
prayers are simply two separate sins. You must apply your hands to more constructive tasks, to
real hard work like clearing the fields, so your palms will become rough; they will have such
hard calluses you will feel only pain if you play with yourself. As for your prayers, you must
apply your whole mind and heart to them whenever you utter them and not let your mind
“No no no, Padre.” The boy was frantic. “My iloy has warned me over and over again that
every time I play with myself, part of my soul is stolen and taken to the cave of forgetfulness. If I
keep doing it, I will soon forget who she is, where I live, who I ever was. And I am, I am
beginning to forget. I have forgotten what comes after the number seven, so I cannot pray the
Ave Maria more than seven times for every decade of the rosary. I do not know what comes after
the month of July or what day comes after Sunday...”
In the confessional, Fray Montano taught the boy the coconut song so he would always
remember all the months of the year, especially those that went beyond July: ... junio julyo
agosto, septiembre octubre, noviembre diciembre, lubi-lubi. Together they sang while other
penitent indios waited outside and hoped their own sins would stimulate as much musical gusto.
For the sacristan’s penance, Fray Montano commanded him to pray the Ave Maria seven
times plus one every day for one week, seven times plus two in the second week, and seven
times plus three in the third. Thus, he would learn how to count again to ten, beyond which
indios had no need to go. This was why God had given them only ten fingers in the first place.
Finally, he advised the boy to study his catechism over and over again; the important thing was
to fill his mind with sacred thoughts. An idle mind, he repeated the bishop’s admonition to Fray
Duertas, was the devil’s playground.
Yet Fray Montano’s very problem was that his own mind could not stay idle. It was fertile
land that had been ploughed and furrowed and planted to crops of such wild diversity he was
now reaping a harvest of eggplants and bananas and nippled coconuts and thrusting root crops
and clitoral rice grains and pubic-haired corncobs. And so, trusting in the wisdom of old wives
and mothers, Fray Montano did exactly the abhorrent thing that ate up one’s brain. To erase the
memory of everything that he had written each day, he expended himself each night, his hand
like a tightly clenched fist gripping a quill like a hardwood pile driving through sand and oh the
glorious feel of the vise-like grip on the pile and finally the pile resting on the bedrock, thus
assuring a solid foundation for the church to be built on.
Day by day, Fray Montano’s vocabulary of indio sensuousness steadily expanded in direct
proportion to his girth but in indirect proportion to his memory. Week by week, the indios began
to notice that portions of the Mass were dropping off, like the rotting parts of a leper’s body. At
first, it was the less essential parts, like the homily, and, if anyone noticed that he had skipped the
Epistle to go straight into the Gospel, it was with a sense of relief and tacit collusion with what
they thought was the fraile’s desire to abbreviate the Mass, for it was the height of summer and
even both indios and indias themselves were suffering from the sticky feel of their sinamay shirts
on their sweating bodies.
Every morning, Fray Montano forgot the words that he had listed the day before because a
brain cell had died in the night, and he did not know that he was repeating himself, adding old
words to even older words, so that there was no end to his lexicographic task.
“We are always beginning anew,” Fray Duertas had told him once, sadly, as he was turning
over the mission to Fray Montano. “The indios come and have themselves baptized. They would
leave their huts in the mountains to live within hearing distance of the church bells for a few
months. But one day I’d wake and find they’d slipped away in the night, because these indios
like to move around, searching for fields they can slash and burn. Then they go back to their
pagan ways.”
Fray Montano was always beginning anew. The sheets of paper on which he wrote his lists
began to spill out of drawers and cabinets where he had hidden them away from curious indio
eyes, because even if the indios did not know how to read, the shapes of the letters themselves
were enough to stir anyone’s libido.

One day the cabeza came to him in anxiety over the number of huts that were increasingly
being abandoned. “Te, Padre, the people are deserting us,” he said. “I will be the one to pay for
all the missing tribute if I hardly have anything to remit,” he added pleadingly and waved his
accounting records in the fraile’s face. “The pueblo’s population keeps decreasing everyday, but
the gobernadorcillo will never believe such an obvious truth as this. He will accuse me of
abusing my privilege to cheat.”
To convince the gobernadorcillo of the legitimacy of his accounting excesses, the cabeza had
devised an ingenious mathematical formula involving demography, statistics, volume, weight,
and the ritualistic slitting of chicken stomachs for the inspection of bile, liver and entrails. Being
cabeza was a most gratifying position if one’s fraile was normal, but of what use was a fraile
who did not stand on the pulpit and roar at them—in a voice that seemed to be coming out of the
whirlwind—for not remitting their cash of two-and-a-half reales plus another two-and-a-half
reales’ worth of rice, medriñaque wine, beeswax and one chicken per head?
When Fray Montano was new to the village, the cabeza was most pleased to discover this
fraile’s disinterest in the fat of the land and the produce of the poor, unlike Fray Duertas who
presumed it his right to receive half of everything that the cabeza was able to cheat the
government out of. But the cabeza saw the justice in that, for after all, Fraile Duertas had used
the law of the polo to force the people into clearing the fields and planting crops and vegetables
and fruit trees. They had not only had enough food to eat then but enough surplus to afford the
But now the human demography was practically nil while the fowl population was
overrunning the village. The chickens were laying eggs and hatching them in alarming numbers
because no one was slaughtering and eating them. The cabeza was certain that he was running
afoul of the whole chain of command, of which he was at the very bottom, when all he could
account for was 4,972 chickens, of which only one chicken per human head, remember, was to
be remitted. How to account for the dwindling number of human heads while the chickens
“Did you have something to do with this, Estrella?” Montano asked his friend in what he
hoped was a voice stern enough to extract a confession from her. He stood over her as she
squatted by the spring that the people still remembered to call the Tuburan sang Tigulang. It was
the only place now to which Estrella could still summon her spirit-friends because it was here
that they had first taught her to walk on water. He knew she could make people disappear by
leading them astray from one world to another, and he would not put it past her to hatch up this
scheme so that she could make him disappear, for of course his very survival depended on the
size of his congregation.
She snorted as she dipped her bamboo tube into the water. “This was all your own doing this
time. Your Señor neighbor has been recruiting them and has bought their loyalty with promises
of lodging and wages for their labor in his hacienda. And your governor is happy about this
because you have allowed them to get used to so much idleness. Now what do you have to
He stared into the spring and said softly, “No matter how long the road, it will still come back
to the church.”
He trusted in the Lord; the Lord would find a way to bring them back. Fray Duertas had said
that they were always beginning anew. The indios kept leaving but they always came back. They
delighted too much in all the ritual and pomp of the white encantos’ religion. It would be a drab
life indeed for them if they did not have their processions, fiestas and Christmas daygon. All he
had to do was wait for them to realize that the Señor in the hacienda was going to renege on his
promises and would not hesitate to take the whip to them. It was going to be worse than forced
labor, because they were not going to enjoy the fruit of its harvest. One could only live so long
on sugarcane juice.
“The tuburan is drying up,” she warned, pointing with her claw to the waterline that was a
fraction of a centimeter above the water surface, “because it knows to what evil the water of this
island is being put. Fray Duertas is turning rivers into ditches that will water only sugarcane. He
is installing wheels in the water to run the machine that will crush my people’s blood out of the
cane. He is flattening our diwatas’ sinalimba chariots into barges to carry the people’s spirits in
jute sacks into your kapre’s diamond world, from where they will never return. And you—you’re
dying, Padre. The next one who replaces you will have to begin anew if you don’t stop the few
who are still here from running away too.”
Montano had long ago stopped trying to understand his friend’s sense of time, which—he
had learned through many confusing conversations with her—was a labyrinth of tunnels leading
to remote, recent and immediate pasts and an equally bewildering number of tunnels leading to
synchronic presents and futures. Somewhere in her future, she saw him dying; but he was only
46 and he thought he still had 52 years to go.
But he caught Estrella’s sense of alarm, however vaguely, because he too worried about the
fate of the indios’ souls. That night, Fray Montano was kept awake, this time not by the agony of
staring at the gray blankness of his aphasia, but by his anxiety over his vanishing congregation.
By Sunday, Fray Montano had decided what to do. He was sure he would be able to solve
this newest problem if he could just expand his taxonomy of indio luxuria and concupiscence
and thus keep their souls encaged behind column after column of words.
At Mass that day, Fray Montano spoke from the pulpit with a lucidity that startled his handful
of loyal parishioners. “Confess,” he urged them, “confess your sins with the humility of a sinner
who stands naked before God.”
He clutched the edge of the pulpit as he leaned forward, his whole body sweating with
earnestness. And the indios sat and listened avidly as he gave them thorough instruction on how
to make sincere and thorough confession. “...And when you sinned against the sixth
commandment, of what relation to you was the man or woman you committed the sin with?
Were they married or single? If a cousin, how many times removed? And how many years,
months or weeks have you been committing this sin? Do you do it everyday, every other day, or
what? And do you tease each other with both word and hand? And as you grope and tug and
stroke, do you become wet? And where there are three or four of you gathered together to engage
in this play, how many of you are married? And do you ever engage in intercourse with an
animal? What kind of animal? How many times? In secrecy or in the presence of other people?
How many people?...”
Fray Montano began finally to understand what it meant to speak in tongues; the Holy Spirit
had given him the gift and he could feel Him like a gush of cool liquid that had suddenly broken
through the stalactites and stalagmites of his brain and heart and arteries and innards and come
out of his mouth with the translucence of spring water that had lain hidden in a cave for 319
years. He offered them 567 more guidelines that he rattled off the top of his head as he went
along, describing sin after sin, thinking up permutations upon permutations along the way. For
the first time, his flock sat still and listened with unflagging interest.
Thence did his people tell their hyperbolic stories in the confessional with such relish that
they decided to stay and remain the devout Catholics that Fray Montano assured them they were
for keeping their lives like an open book to him.
One morning Fray Montano was dreaming that he was flying on a strand of Estrella’s
perfumed hair over the map of Spain, from Isabela to Magallon to Pontevedra to Zaragoza to
Valladolid to Alegria to Cadiz to Escalante to Calatrava to Toboso. He was just about to get to
Siguenz when he drifted from sleep to realize that it was his sacristan outside his window who
was reciting all the Spanish town names in a singsong voice. The boy’s father had taught the boy
all the rhymes that Fray Montano had taught him a long time ago so he would not be imprisoned
in the cave of forgetfulness. But this rhyme was unfamiliar to the fraile.
“Oy, Juan,” the fraile called out to the boy from his window, “and have the textbooks from
Spain arrived then? Are you reading about my country’s geography?”
The boy looked up at him guiltily and felt impelled to confess, “No, Padre, it’s the song my
Tatay taught me so I could memorize all the town names on this island.”
The indios had been bringing home stories from the tabuan about the single road that Fray
Duertas had built from his pueblo. It was sprouting more branches like a balete tree as younger
frailes came to build more churches and roads while their kin came to build more haciendas. The
frailes were now trying to conquer this strange land by baptizing their mission villages with the
names of the towns from where they had come. But Montano had only to smell Estrella’s roots
and herbs and to gaze at the agile fingers of her good hand to know that the island’s 12,700
square kilometers of ember-spewing volcano, hostile flora and fauna, and human-devouring
bodies of water refused to resemble anything and remained stubbornly, unashamedly itself.
Yet the island, in truth, did not always win the battle to keep its original topography intact.
There was the composo about the contest of wits between the monkey and the crocodiles. The
monkey, named Pedro Latay, was the leader of a group of monkeys who wanted to cross to the
other side of the river, where bananas were plentiful. But the crocodiles lay in wait for them and
would not be duped again into floating end to end so that the monkeys could walk over them to
the other side. So Pedro Latay tied bamboo poles together with rattan strips to make a cage and
strung it with another rattan strip from a tree branch. He got into the cage and instructed his
fellow monkeys to lower him down into the water. He then thrust his arms out through the
bamboo bars and erected the foundations of what was to be the first bridge on the island, while
the crocodiles banged their snouts against the cage in frustration. Defeated, the diwata of the
river finally called her pet crocodiles away and they never came back. Fray Montano thought
vaguely that perhaps this Pedro Latay, the monkey, had once been his cook’s pet that had escaped
from the convento, for its name and its skill at balancing and building sounded familiar to him.
In the last summer of his life, Fray Montano climbed up the bell tower himself to ring the
bells for the Angelus. As he looked down from his great height, he thought he was a child again
in Siguenz, gazing at the most magnificent procession he had ever seen in his life. Lights were
being lit one by one in a long line along the coast of the island as the bells tolled. It was a line
that led from one parish church to another, so that no matter how great the distance it covered,
the procession of lights ended and began at a church. The indio workers who were building the
roads and bridges had taken to working at night and sleeping by day to avoid being roasted by
the summer sun. The helpful frailes of the island, themselves caught in the fever of Fray Duertas’
building mania, had provided each of them with a gas lamp. The long line of gas lamps burning
in the night steadily moved forward as the work progressed.
Mothers began to sing their children to sleep with the composo about the cruel frailes who
forced indios to work in the heat of the sun; at night they had only their gaseras to see through
the inky darkness.
By this time, Fray Montano was preparing to die in his convento in Pueblo Buyonan. He was
only 59 but the year was 1898. From the day he started work on his dictionary, he had never
stopped. In fact, toward the last years of his life, he had stepped up his listing to a more frenetic
pace when he began to notice that his secret cache of indio luxuria and concupiscence was
vanishing, for the ink in which he had written the words was fading. Soon, all that would remain
to testify that Fray Montano had once been Pueblo Buyonan’s parish priest were hundreds of
blank sheets of paper, on which the next fraile, perhaps, would continue what Fray Duertas had
already finished, the Arte de la Lengua Bisaya-Hiligaina de la Isla del Negros.
Fray Montano lay on his hardwood cot by the window of his convent to listen to Estrella
rehearsing her people in the singing of the pasyon. Once, a very long time ago, he had hoped to
teach them how to sing the life and passion of Christ in the style of the Gregorian chant. But Fray
Duertas had only laughed uproariously and sneered, “Ha! You’ll never get the mountain out of
their voices.”
He was right of course. Estrella, epic chanter and choir director, gave her people the voice of
Taghuy and Haguyong, spirit guardians of all chanters, and the indio voices rose, hard and sharp
as limestone, straight toward Makagagahum, jolting him awake from his sleep on the mountain,
waking Him to avenge His Son’s pain and suffering. The limestone voices hit the sun and it
splintered into bolos, daggers, krises and spears that swelled into the roar of all the mountain’s
waterfalls, crashing on boulders below. The voices rose again and hovered above the tops of trees
like hoisted water and the clouds that tried to hold them up groaned with the weight of their tone
and pitch and volume. Christ’s pasyon was the song of battle, of lamentation, of defiance, of
victory, of celebration. It was Ibay Padalugdug’s thunderclap and earthquake, Sumanggi Linti’s
lightning flash and storm. Still Taghuy and Haguyong flew around the convent and Fray
Salvador Montano thought that he was weeping because at last he too could hear their voices and
he was sure that from now on they would never leave and he wept because he knew that for
every move he had made in his life he had to answer only to them in this completely alien this
God-forsaken village in which God had willed that he should stay to do His bidding.
Estrella came when she heard him calling for her in his weeping. Stay with me, he asked her
silently because there were no more words needed between them. She lay beside him and cradled
his head on her shoulder and he breathed in the sweet tangy scent of her hair oloroso, agridulce
and sampaguita these were the only words in his dictionary that he had tried desperately to efface
from his memory because he knew they were the one the only true occasion for sin but these
were the only words that had clung to him as tenaciously as Fray Duertas’ goat breath and the
servants’ briny smell and finally he gave in to the terror of Yawa, the Consummator, squatting on
his chest, pouring water into his nose and mouth but he could not struggle free because he could
not move with Yahweh’s weight on his chest, pouring water into his nose until at last he could no
longer smell anything.