Augustine Fiction by Geronimo Tagatac
One Sunday a month, when the men slaughtered a pig, Augustine would fry the chopped intestines, garlic and vinegar, with the pig’s blood, to make the black denuguan which we ate over rice. In the evenings I would hear the lisp of steel sharpened on stone coming through the darkness from his shack. When I thought of him, I thought of blood, earth, and steel.
My father told me that on the day that he brought my mother and me home from the hospital, Augustine walked across the field that separated our house from his orchard shack and asked to be my godfather. My father could not refuse him. After all, Augustine had given my father the money he needed to leave the Philippines for the United States. And during the Depression, Augustine had fed my father leftovers from the restaurants where he worked as dishwasher or fry cook. He had stood by my father in ferocious fights with “those American bums” who hated the sight of a Filipino. Besides, they were both from Bataac.
My father told my mother that Augustine would be able to look out for me, and my mother had replied, “That’s what I’m afraid of.” But this was a debt and my father consented.
Augustine was always there. He was at the far edge of my sight and hearing, walking down the rows of a field, the whispering leaves and stalks brushing against the stiff twill of his khaki work pants, his boots making marks in the soft earth between the rows of squash or beans. He was mixed in with the yellow afternoon light, the wind or the dust smell. Sometimes he was a shadow just behind the first row of stalks in a cornfield. Saturdays, I would notice him squatting with my father and my uncles, talking, making marks in the dust with a stick, wiping the marks away, talking, making new marks.
Stories about Augustine, about fights and killing, were whispered out of his hearing. More than one killing. Sometimes Augustine went away in the slack season, and there were stories about his drinking and running around with bad women. My uncle Valeriano told me about a time when Augustine had backed the wheel of a tractor over some lettuce crates and, in front of the other men, the boss had called him a stupid, slant-eyed, black, son-of-a-bitch. Valeriano said that Augustine’s face became like dark metal, like the thick, coarse steel that goes into the heavy blades of bolo knives. That same afternoon, all of the lettuce leaves in the field began to turn brown at the edges. The next day the crop, all nineteen acres, had begun to wither and was useless. By the third day, the whole field looked as though it had been burned black, and the men who had to walk its dying rows spoke in whispers. On the afternoon of the third day, Augustine turned to Valeriano and said in his quiet, accented English, “The boss don’t need those crates now.”
“Plant disease,” the boss had said.
“Augustine,” said Valeriano, smiling.
My father told me that no one had ever seen Augustine’s naked body. He was never seen without a long-sleeved workshirt. He did not wash with the rest of the men in the bath shed, but always bathed alone, late at night, and no one dared intrude on his privacy. My older cousin, Robert, insisted that Augustine had bad scars from being shot or cut and that that’s why his wife had left him. “She couldn’t stand the sight of his body. I bet he has to pay women to do it with him.” Robert said. I never had the courage to ask Augustine about the scars, not even when I was older. When I asked my mother why Augustine had no wife, she laughed and replied, “He’s got no money and he lives in a shack. That’s why Sharon left him. No future. The only thing he has that’s worth anything is his gold ring.”
I spent a lot of time in the summers with Augustine. In my childlike way, I hoped that he would teach me some special secret. I would sit on the bed in his one-room shack, with the bare, twice-used, two-by-four framing, and listen to the sound that the water coming to a boil in his coffee pot made. He would give me a plate of rice and red beans. If I asked, he would let me look at his heavy gold ring. It had the broad, soft face of a faintly smiling child on it. That smile was so subtle and worldly that it always made me wonder what the child knew. I would try his ring on all of my fingers. It was too large, even for my thumb. I would look into the face on Augustine’s ring and feel an inexplicable thrill of terror. Each time I looked into the face, it seemed new and changed in some small way that I could not explain. Holding Augustine’s ring made me feel as though I were wearing some part of his body and I returned it quickly when asked.
Sometimes, after dinner, I would walk across the freshly plowed fields with Augustine. Once, he told me that the stars were fires in the mouths of faraway caves and that, if I looked carefully enough, I might see the faces of the people who lived in those sky shelters. He said that if I were ever lost in the forest and knew how to sing a special song, they would take me up into their caves and keep me safe for the night. But he never taught me the song.
Finally, I did ask Augustine about his wife. He sucked on his pipe stem, let out his breath, and said, “An American woman. She left me and went away with some guy with more money than me. A Goddamn cannery bookkeeper. Living the high class life in town now.” Then he looked at me for a moment and said, “You go to school. Better you forget about women until you know something.” A week later, he gave me a small dictionary and a frayed copy of the 1941 Book of Knowledge.
One evening, when I was nine, I was standing among the men, in the yard between our house and the bunkhouse, where the single men lived, when an argument began between my uncle Valeriano and one of the new men. The argument grew and grew, Uncle Valeriano’s voice, then the new man’s, faster and faster, until there was nothing left but an awful silence. Then the sound of the new man’s footsteps on the dusty earth, as he walked back to the bunkhouse. Everyone stood still in the thick, red light and listened to the quick sound of the new man’s footsteps coming out of the bunkhouse. His revolver’s blue cylinder snapped closed as he walked toward Valeriano. Everyone stood frozen, waiting for the crack of the gun, waiting for the hard sound of Valeriano’s body hitting the ground.
Then, “Hssst!” Everyone’s head turned, knowing that the shape coming out of the fading light was Augustine, drawn from across the field into the lethal vacuum. I remember seeing the stillness in Augustine’s face. I saw his eyes, looking into the new man’s face, his presence blotting out Valeriano and the other men, until I could see nothing but Augustine’s face and eyes. Augustine’s dark hand, with its hard, blue-black veins, reached out to the man. The man’s gun hand rose to meet Augustine’s as though drawn by the gold ring on his finger, and then the new man’s hand was empty. Augustine, held the revolver, then turned and was gone. He went into the new darkness so swiftly and quietly that I thought I could hear the air sliding into the space behind him as he strode across the field.
The new man had nightmares after that. His screaming infected everyone in the camp. By the fourth night, my father and mother, my Uncle Valeriano, and all the men in the bunkhouse found that their own awful dreams were somehow bound to those of the new man. My mother, dreamed that she was being crushed slowly by a hippopotamus. My father dreamed his father was whipping him with a belt for spilling a sack of rice. Uncle Valeriano was being bayoneted by Japanese soldiers. I dreamed I was holding Augustine’s ring in the palm of my hand and that it was biting me, harder and harder. When I could no longer bear the pain of those tiny teeth, I woke, screaming, and realized that we were all screaming in harmony. It went on for nine days.
On the morning of the tenth day, the new man got out of bed, without bothering to dress or gather his things, and drove away in his green Hudson. We never saw him again and the dreams stopped. For years afterward, my family would laugh until they couldn’t breath when someone told the story about all of us, howling in the night, and the naked man fleeing in his green car.
When I was twelve, Augustine took me to see the Pacific Ocean. We parked off the highway and walked down the dirt road, through the misty broccoli fields toward the headlands over Ano Nuevo Beach. I remember thinking that the distant voice of the ocean sounded like the water in Augustine’s coffee pot coming to a boil. He said that it was the sound of all the souls in heaven. I remember the rough pressure of his hand, like living metal, as it held mine.
We walked out to the bluffs. Seagulls slid through the wind that broke against the cliffs. I watched the plumes of spray swirl off the tops of breaking waves, and I was sure that it was the breath of souls in the cool air.
“Why doesn’t my mother like you?” I asked.
“Because I am so close to your father.”
“Why does that make her mad?”
“When your father was courting your mother, I made him go away with me for a long time.”
“Back to the Philippines. To Bataac, by the side of a lake”
“Why did you do that?”
He was quiet for a moment, his eyes years away. Then he said, “Maybe I wanted to show him something. But when I knew that I couldn’t stop him from marrying her, I let him go back to her. She has never forgiven me.”
“We don’t talk about it.” He smiled. “I want to ask you something.”
“Would you like to have my ring?”
Suddenly, the sound of the ocean and the wind, and the voices of the gulls went away. Augustine’s question had stopped the world’s breath and silenced the dead souls. I remembered the silence just before the new man was going to shoot Valeriano, and I began to cry.
“If you want.”
“No. I mean, thank you, Augustine but ...”
“Don’t be afraid.” He put his arm around me.
“I want someday, but not now. “
“It’s okay.” He took out a red bandanna and wiped the tears from my face.
“The sounds of the wind and the ocean swept in again.
That was the last time I saw Augustine.
A year ago, my parents wrote to tell me that Augustine had died alone, in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, in the Luzon Hotel. Old age they said. When they inventoried his things, they found a savings account book with a forty-five hundred dollar balance. I phoned my folks when I got the letter. My father told me that the coroner’s office had asked him to go to the morgue to identify Augustine’s body. When they pulled the sheet covering the body away, my father was surprised. No scars. I asked my father about Augustine living the way he did, with money stashed away. My father laughed and said, “He did it to make his ex-wife crazy.”
For a long time after Augustine died, I didn’t like the sound that the boiling water in my coffee pot made. Sometimes, when I looked at the bare earth in the park, I thought that I could see the scratch marks of his stick. At night, I would look up at the sky, through the sounds and the lights of the city, searching for faces, wishing that Augustine had taught me the song that would give me refuge there. And then the ring arrived.
I tried it on each of my fingers. It was still too large. Looking into the face on the ring, I thought it had changed but I wasn’t sure. The first time I showed it to my friend she turned it over in her hand and stared at its face. “It’s your face,” she said. “But then you know that, don’t you.”
Geronimo Tagatac is a first generation Filipino-American. He spent his childhood living and working in the fields and orchards of rural California. He has published short fiction in the “Writers Forum,” “Orion” and “Mississippi Mud.” “Augustine” has appeared in the “Northwest Review.” He currently lives and writes in Salem, Oregon. He can be reached by e-mail.