Stretched Toward Him Like a Dark Wake Fiction by Geronimo Tagatac
On the night of August 15, 1929, a heavyset man in a luminous, white linen suit stood and announced to the audience that anyone who could spend ten minutes in the ring with the heavyweight champion of the Philippines would be given one hundred dollars. Jacinto, with a few fistfights to his credit, was goaded into the ring by his friends. Twelve terrible minutes after the attendants had laced the gloves onto his hands, he climbed shakily back through the thick ropes, his seventeen-year-old cheeks bruised, his lips split and bleeding, and two of his left ribs cracked. He was nearly blinded by the blood in his eyes. In his dark hand, he held more money than he had ever seen in his life. Years later, he would shake his head at the craziness of what he had done.
He stayed in Manila for ten days, waiting for the bruises on his face to fade and the swelling to subside. Then he took the bus north to his family’s hamlet, in Baay. He went back, one last time, to the smells of rice paddies, cane fields, and the bamboo groves of his boyhood. He spent a week saying good-bye to his parents, brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles. The day before he left, there was a feast to commemorate the one-year anniversary of his grandfather’s death. When the priest prayed aloud for his grandfather’s soul, he heard his mother’s voice among those of the older women, in soft refrain. After the sun had fallen beyond the soft fringe of the trees, he looked across the firelight into his father’s eyes, and he knew by the iron stillness in the older man’s face, that his father was mourning both the loss of his own father and the impending departure of his eldest son.
The next morning his father walked two miles with him to the north-south highway. They waited more than an hour in the rising heat for a two-wheeled horse cart to arrive. When it did, his father held his head between hands that were as hard as wood and kissed him on both cheeks. “Do not forget us when you are gone.” Jacinto looked into his father’s sharp face and deepset eyes. For the first time in his life, he began to understand, although imperfectly, what it was like to give up a part of himself in exchange for the promise of something over the horizon. In the brief seconds that remained, he realized that he must map the country of his father’s face and voice, the feel of his hands, and the smell of his deep brown skin. And then he was in the bouncing cart, trying not to show his tears as he watched his father’s form diminish into the shining apex of the road.
From Manila, Jacinto sailed east across the Pacific in the hold of a ship filled with men like himself, dreaming of returning to their villages one day, laden with gifts for their families, carrying enough money to buy land, to marry, and have children. The men often stood together on the ship’s deck, looking out at the circle of the horizon, where the blue sky met the green-blue sea. They sailed on and on, day after day. Beyond the slow rise and fall of the ship’s hull, nothing seemed to move except the ship’s wake, which was like a restless arrow, pointing the way back toward their homeland.
In the ten years that followed, Jacinto held jobs in a hundred places, washing dishes, harvesting asparagus, sugar beets, beans, and corn. He learned to fox-trot, to waltz, and to samba in the taxi-dance halls, at the edge of places like Sacramento and Stockton, where he paid the women a nickel for a dance and practiced his English on them. In all of those years, his only link with his homeland were the intermittent letters from his brothers and sisters. They came in faded white envelopes with stamps bearing the serious face of Jose Rizal, his country’s national martyr. The post-marks were always months old. He would read and re-read the brittle pages filled with tight script, written in black ink. “Victorio’s brother Antonio died in January.” “Ophelia had another baby girl in March.” “Marciano has gone to Laoag to find work.” The letters always ended the same way. “We miss you very much, my dearest son. Please say that you will be coming home soon.”
By the time he got the chauffer and houseboy’s job, he was twenty-eight. He met Jean Glixman at a nightclub party. When first he looked into her gray eyes, he suddenly felt as though he had been floating through the years toward her without knowing it. They married a month later. No one in Jean’s family attended the wedding. They had a son the following winter and, dreaming of raising the boy under high western skies, they moved to a farm outside of Isleton, California. In the boy’s fifth winter, his mother ran out into a rainstorm to pull her flapping sheets off of the clothes line, like a desperate sailor shortening the sails of a ship in the face of an oncoming gale. She died of pnuemonia a month later. A week after Jean died, Jacinto received a letter from his brother in the Philippines. The post-mark on the envelope was six-months old. He opened the letter and read the news of his father’s death. He sat at the kitchen table for a long time, looking out at the dirt road that divided the world into two damp halves. And then he put his face into his rough hands and wept for loss of his wife and his father.
Jacinto went back to the life of a migrant farmworker, taking his son with him. In the summer of 1947, they went southeast of the lifeless Salton Sea, to a large farm between Niland and Calipatria, in the dry, pale reaches of the Imperial Valley. It was miles off the highway, a place made possible only by irrigation. Jacinto labored alongside other Filipinos from Ilocos Norte, Batangas, and Samar. He worked six days a week, waist deep in the endless rows of deep green tomato plants, under the palest skies he had ever known. Whenever Jacinto looked across the green expanse of tomato plants, he remembered standing in the stern of the ship, somewhere between Manila and Honolulu, looking back at the deep water, churned white by the ship’s propellers.
Once in a great while, a quick, soft breeze rippled the tops of the tomato plants. When that happened, all of the men would raise their heads in unison, as though they had each heard the same voice calling to them. And then they would bend their heads and backs toward the earth again. The nights in that place were so still that the only sound in the world seemed to be that of the large, green cooler on the side of the bunkhouse which could be heard a mile away. His son learned to play among the empty tomato crates, alongside irrigation ditches that bordered the endless rows of tomato plants. And he came to regard the other men as his uncles.
One morning, Jacinto’s son told him that he had dreamed that he was standing in the middle of a field and did not know how he had gotten there because he could not see his footprints in the soil. On the following day, the boy said that he had had the same dream but that this time he had seen a man at the edge of the field watching him. Jacinto asked him who the man was. The boy replied, “An old, old man.”
The next morning, the boy could not open his eyes. His eyelids had been sealed shut by a thin film of mucus which had dried in the night. Jacinto bathed his son’s eyes with a damp, warm towel until he freed the eyelids. But when the boy tried to open his eyes, he could not bear the light. He told his father between sobs that the man in his dream had walked across the field to him and put his hands softly over his eyes. He said that the man’s hands felt and smelled just like his father’s.
Jacinto put the back of his hand on his son’s forehead for a moment. “I’ll take you to the doctor when I come home for lunch,” he said.
“Pinkeye. In both eyes and as bad as I’ve seen it,” the doctor said, after examining the boy. He did not bother with the medical term for the boy’s ailment: severe, contagious conjunctivitis. He gave Jacinto a blue glass bottle of liquid, instructing him to bathe the boy’s eyes with its contents once a day. Then he took a strip of white cloth and blindfolded the boy. “He should be better in a week.” That evening, all of the uncles came by to see how Jacinto’s son was. Cleto, the oldest of them, ran his dark, callused hands through the boy’s black hair and made a clucking sound with his tongue.
Early the next morning, as Jacinto worked in the fields, he became aware of a sudden stillness among the other men, as though the very air had frozen. A faint movement at the end of his row caught his eye. It was his blindfolded son. The boy had somehow managed to find his way out of their shack and, in the semi-darkness, feel his way down the half-mile of dirt track to the edge of the tomato field. In his blindness, his son had found the very row his father was working. One of the men behind Jacinto crossed himself and murmured, “Jesus y Maria.”
At the end of the second week of his son’s blindness, Jacinto went to old Cleto and asked him what he should do.
“Has someone in your family died?” the old man asked.
“And when was that?”
“Two years ago.”
“You had a feast one year after he died?”
“No. Who could I invite to such a feast? I had lost my wife and I had no money.”
Cleto looked at the ground, shook his head. “Have you dreamed about your father?”
“What about your son?”
“He dreamed that a man touched his eyes.”
“It is not good that you did not have a feast.”
“Do you think that my father is angry with me?”
“The boy does not get better.”
“Do you think that it will help to have a feast so late?”
“It cannot hurt,” said Cleto, smiling.
The next day, Jacinto bought a pig. The men pooled their cash and sent one of their number into the nearest town to buy a fifty-pound bag of rice, cooking oil, garlic, vinegar, and the other things that they would need. From Cleto’s small, carefully tended and watered vegetable patch, they got light green bittermellon and deep, purple eggplants.
The men killed and butchered Jacinto’s pig early on Sunday and cooked all through the morning, making denuguan, adobo, pinakbet, and pansit. They made three large pots of snowy steamed rice. The boy, drawn by the sound of the men’s voices and movements, wandered among them, his small hands before him, as though he could feel the sharp smells of cooking food. When they were done, the men went to bathe and put on clean clothes.
A Catholic priest, whom Cleto had invited from town, blessed the food and said prayers for the soul of Jacinto’s father. Then he put his soft, white hands onto the boy’s head and prayed for the return of his health and sight. Jacinto asked the priest to eat with them, and he accepted their food. Before he left, Jacinto gave him an envelope which contained ten one-dollar bills. Later that night, as the boy stood with the others around a fire, one of the men played old, sentimental songs on his mandolin, romantic melodies from the time when the Spanish ruled the Philippines, before the coming of the Americans. Several of the men raised their voices to sing about love and longing, young men’s songs sung by men in their forties. Above them, the stars shone in the black, black sky reminding them of the restless nights of their youths.
Jacinto stood in fire’s wavering light and told them the story of how, at the turn of the century, his father had joined the fighting against the Spanish and then the Americans. There had been a battle with the Americans near Bataac and the insurrectos, defeated, had scattered. His father, alone and exhausted, fell asleep beside a small stream. When he woke, he found a stone beneath his head. A clear, yellow stone with a tiny, coiled lizard imbedded in its heart. Thereafter, Jacinto’s father had been able to set broken bones and extract bad teeth, neither of which he had been able to do before.
As he told this story, Jacinto saw that his son was standing very still with his blind face turned toward the sound of his voice, as though Jacinto’s words were pushing their way into his skin.
The boy recovered in the following days and his eyes grew well enough so that, by the following Wednesday, he did not need his blindfold. The doctor said it was the eye wash that had done the trick. Jacinto said nothing, out of politeness and respect.
Sometimes the men saw Jacinto’s son walking carefully along the edge of the field, his eyes closed and his hands before him, as though he were trying to find something that he had misplaced in the dark terrain of his blindness. One evening, at the end of the tomato picking season, just before sunset, Jacinto found his son standing in the middle of a freshly disked field. Jacinto watched the dusty red sun stretch the boy’s shadow toward him like a dark wake. From where he stood, he saw that the boy was looking west, as though he were waiting for the arrival of someone who was just beyond the horizon’s sharp edge.
Geronimo Tagatac is a first generation Phillipine-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.” He currently lives and writes in Salem, Oregon. He can be reached at [email protected].