(Augustine . . . )
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.