Friday, October 24, 2008

The Son of Jose Rizal

(Author's Note: Doctor Jose Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, died a martyr's death. Accused of sedition against the mother country, Spain, Rizal was deported, imprisoned, and finally shot. He was married on the morning of his execution. The day of his death is observed annually in the Philippines as an official holiday. Doctor Rizal left no son.)


Last December 30 I boarded the last afternoon train for Lucena, Tayabas. I had waited until the afternoon to leave, for in the morning my wife, my children and I had gone to the Luneta to view the annual Rizal Day parade. On the morning of the 31st I had to close an
important land deal in Lucena.

From my compartment in the train I could see that the third-class cars were filling with returning provincials who had come to the city -- Manila -- to celebrate the day. They formed a clumsy, motley, obstreperous group and crowded both the station platform and the steps to the cars.

They bustled and palavered loudly like little, unruly children. Some were students going home for a day or two, and they were easily and contrastingly distinguishable from the rest by their modern, flashy clothes. There was a short, ducklike fellow among them who hummed "Ramona," but nobody listened to him for another was cracking a joke about women.

There was much pushing and jostling on the steps to the cars, and a woman who was invisible, whose feet had been injudiciously stepped upon, issued a string of shrill invectives. She called the persons about her "Goats!... Pigs!... Brutes!" She cried to them: did they have no regard for women, did they have no conscience, and, oh! of what advantage being a woman if you had to be trampled upon like an old, useless mat!...

But there was one person of all this crowd who caught my true attention -- or was it a feeling of pity? I felt guilty that I should think myself so superior as to bestow compassion on a fellow creature. Yet there I was, feeling it, and unable to help myself... He was a small, debile, bark-colored man, lugging a long, narrow buri bag which in the native tongue is called bayong. He found difficulty in pushing through the group on the steps to the car, and finally retreated quietly to the platform. On his shallow, thin face was written the fear he had that the train might start before he had got on. The black-green, shapeless, old felt hat that he wore was too small for his head, and he pulled it in deeper. Then the
locomotive bell began to ring its slow, awing, annunciative notes, and the man got nervous. He was pitifully helpless like a lost animal as he stood there not knowing where to get on.

In my pocket I had two tickets, for not quite fifteen minutes ago my eldest son had insisted on going along with me, but had later on desisted. The tickets had been bought, and I could not find the nerve to return the other. In such little things I am most conscious and sensitive, and would feel myself brazen and shameless, if I returned with indifference the things already paid for... Caritatively again (and I hated myself for it) I thought of offering the other ticket to the man.

Half guiltily I whistled to him, and he glanced confusedly in my direction. I beckoned him to approach, which I saw he was reluctant to do -- so afraid was he that he would lose more time and not get on the train at all. But I raised my two tickets for him to see, and I surmised that he understood my intention, for he hobbled hurriedly to my window. In brief words I explained to him that I had an extra ticket, and would he be kind enough to share my company in my compartment? I was alone, I said. Timidly yet eagerly he accepted my

The steps to the first-class cars are often, if not always, clear, and soon he was at the door of my compartment. He mumbled a ceremonious, deferential greeting, removing the black-green hat. I told him to step in, and he did so, silently lifting the buri bag and depositing it on the iron net above our heads; beside it he placed the hat. Then he settled himself awkwardly on the seat opposite mine, and regarded me with soft, friendly, pathetic eyes.... The train started.

He was sparely built and poorly dressed. He wore the poor man's camisa-chino, but it was clean and freshly starched. He had on white drill trousers and red velvet slippers.

He smiled shyly at me and I smiled in return.

"You see, I've got my ticket," he tried to explain, pulling it out of his camisa-chino's pocket, "but it was hard to get in. I cannot afford to ride in here, you know," he confessed half embarrassed. His thick lips moved slowly, docilely, and his voice was thin, slow and sad. His small, round, melancholy eyes were lowered in humility.

I told him I was glad to help him. I said I was bound for Lucena, and he where?

"Calamba. That is where I live.... I have three children -- two little girls and a boy. Their mother -- she died at childbirth."

I expressed my sympathy and told him I hoped the children were well.

"They are good children," he said contentedly.

We fell into a warm, friendly chat. He was well-mannered in speech, and although he did not talk fluently -- sometimes he was tongue-tied -- yet he managed to convey his thoughts.

We became confidential in each other, and I spoke to him of my business. I said I was married and had more children than he had, and was a commercial agent. I said I was tired of the work but was not sure I would be more successful in other lines.

He was sympathetic and in return spoke to me about himself and his trade. His name was Juan Rizal and he was a shoemaker. He had a little shop in the front of his house. "It is not a big house," he said.

I said: "You have a good name: Juan Rizal."

"My father is Rizal," he answered.

"Then maybe you are a relative of the hero," I said inferentially.

"Near relation, I suppose."

"No. Rizal is my father" he said. "Rizal. Doctor Rizal," he emphasized, and I saw a brilliant light of pride in his small, buttonlike eyes. "Yes," he affirmed himself with not a little bombast.

I said I had not heard and did not know that Rizal had a son.

"Yes, he has," he said matter-of-factly. "I am he." And he looked at me superiorly.

"The books do not speak of Rizal having a son," I said.

"They don't know," he negated with perfect self-confidence. "They don't know -- at all. I am the son of Rizal."

As he said this, he sat himself erect, lifted his chest out, and plaited together his fingers on his lap. He was little and thin, and when he stretched himself to look great and dignified, he became pathetically distorted. Now he looked elongated, disconcertingly elongated, like an extending, crawling, loathsome leech.

And I was moved and I lied: "I am glad to know you. I am glad to know the son of Rizal," I said.

"Rizal had only one son," he explained. "I am he, that son -- yes, I am he. But people won't believe me -- they are envious of me."

There was a slight whimpering, protestive note in his voice. His thick lips quivered and a film covered his eyes. I thought he was going to cry and I began to feel uncomfortable.

"They are envious of me," he repeated, and could not say more -- a choking emotion had seized him. He swayed lightly as though he would fall.

I realized the intensity of his feeling and I kept quiet. When he regained himself, he asked me in a half fearful, half apologetic tone:

"Do you believe me?"

I faltered: "Y-yes."

A happy light beamed in his dumb, doglike eyes.

He said: "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you." He said this, straining himself, for he was greatly excited with gratitude.

There passed moments of silence, and we looked through the window at the passing scenes. The greenery in the soft sunlight was beautiful and healthy, imparting to the eyes a sense of coolness, of vastness. The air, though rather warm, we felt cool and soothing. The train moved smoothly, like a vessel on a very peaceful sea.

It was I who broke the silence. I said I had gone to the Luneta that morning to see the parade. The sun had been hot, and my wife, the children and I had perspired a lot. "It is a trial, waiting for and watching a parade," I said.

He said I was right and that he too had seen the parade. He had come to Manila for that purpose only. "I go once a year. It is a sort of -- pilgrimage. But -- I love my father, you see...."

It was a naive, full-souled statement, and he said it with contagious tenderness. His eyes ceased for the moment being dull and inexpressive -- the soft warmth of gentleness, of a supreme devotional love, filled them -- and they became the eyes of a dove.

"I love my father," he repeated wistfully, softly, as though he were chanting a most holy, sacred song.

But I (and may God punish me for my cruelty!) remarked inadvertently that he didn't look like his father.

A look of great, immeasurable hurt stole into his eyes, and he looked at me imploringly, questioned me with those small, melancholy eyes that but a moment ago had been so happy, so inspired, so tender. Struggling out of impending defeat, clamoring to be saved, to be believed in, those eyes looked at me so that a lump rose unwillingly to my throat.

But he said as though he bore me no grudge at all for my cruel remark -- said it softly, lowly, as though in solemn prayer:

"I take -- after my mother."

Yet he was disturbed, completely broken by my remark, I realized. It had cut him deeply, struck his very core, although he wanted to appear composed. And his efforts were futile: his unrest was visible everywhere in his person: his eyes grew painfully feverish, his
nostrils quivered, his lips trembled. And he gave it up with a twitch of his lips, let himself be as he felt, discoursed, to dispel my doubts; on his mother and his birth: [Note 1]

"My father and my mother -- they lived together before they were married. They lived in Talisay, during my father's deportation, but I was born in Dapitan. People don't know that. When I was born they thought -- thought -- I was dead. Dead. But that is not true. I was alive. People thought I was born so, because when my mother was in a delicate condition before my birth, my father played a prank on her and she sprang forward and struck against an iron stand. She became sick -- I was born prematurely. But I was alive. Do you understand? I was born, and alive -- and I lived" There was galvanic energy in his
excited voice. "My mother, she was Irish -- Josefina Bracken." He gazed deeper into my eyes. "I don't remember her well," he said. "I don't remember her. She had brown eyes and a little nose." He blew his nose with a cheap, colored handkerchief.

"My father liked her but maybe he did not love her. He loved Leonora. Leonora was his cousin. They were separated when my father went to Europe. Leonora's mother intercepted his letters -- she withheld them from Leonora. When my father came back she was married." He stopped and brooded.

"I ran away from my mother when I was old enough to do so. I ran away to Calamba. My father was born there. I wanted to go there -- to live there. I have lived there ever since.... Have you ever been to Calamba?"

I said: "No."

"My father married my mother on the morning of his execution," he pursued. "My father was brave," he said. "He was not afraid of the Spaniards. He fell forward when they shot him -- they wanted to shoot him in the back, but he turned around and fell forward."

He was greatly excited. His face was flushed. "They shot him -- my father -- the white scoundrels! They shot my father -- as they would -- a dog!" He was indignant and a string of tirades left his lips. He shook with fuming rage. His thin, sticklike fingers closed and opened frantically. He was so vituperative I was afraid he did not realize what he was saying.

I stretched a comforting hand to his to calm him down. He looked at me with quivering lips and I realized his helplessness. He told me with rising, apologetic consciousness that he had not meant to upset me. He begged tearfully for my forgiveness, clutching my hands tightly in his. "Please forgive me," he said. "Please forgive me."

I was afraid he would kneel down, so I moved over to his side and said I understood.

"Do you?" he said. "Do you?" His voice was pleading, full of internal ache.

"I do," I said.

He quieted down. He turned his face away from mine, ashamed that he had let his feelings run loose.

We were silent again. Only the chug-chug-chug of the train could be heard, and the wind-tossed laughter of those in the neighboring compartments. The air had grown cooler, dusk was fast approaching, and only a lone bird flitted in the sky. There was a sweet, flowing sound as we crossed a rivulet.

My companion turned to me and made me understand that he was desirous of asking a question. I encouraged him.

"His books -- you have read my father's books, the Noli and the Filibusterismo?" There was still a tremor in his voice, and he mispronounced the last title, calling it "Plisterismo."

"Only the Noli," I said. "I have not had the time to read the other."

He kept his questioning gaze, and I gathered that he wanted me to talk on the book.

"It is a good book," I said. "Only a keen, observant mind could have written it."

He beamed and showed happiness at my words. Peace and repose spread over his face.

"I am glad you like it. I have -- never read it. That is why I asked you. I have -- never learned to read."

We were approaching the station of Calamba, Laguna.

"We are nearing your place," I said.

"Yes," he said, and a sadness was now in his voice. "I wish," he murmured, "I could invite you home."

"I will drop in some day."

The train slackened speed and finally stopped. I helped the son of Rizal lift the buri bag from the net.

"For my children," he explained, smiling. "I bought them fruits."

He asked me before he alighted: "Do you really believe me?"

"I do."

He was very happy and shook my hands effusively.

"Good-bye," he said.


The train moved again.


The following month I went to Calamba on the invitation of a friend. It had been a long time, about six years, since we had last met in the city, and now I was to be godfather to his firstborn. The choosing of the name depended on me, he had written, and I was elated by it. Aside from the customary baptismal gift, I brought with me a plaster bust of Rizal which I intended to present to Juan Rizal; I purposed to drop in on him for a while.

After the ceremony I asked my host if he knew anything about Juan Rizal.

"Yes," he said. "You mean Juan Kola."

I told him to explain.

"He is a shoemaker -- owns a little shop near the edge of the town. The children call him Juan Sira. You know what that means: nutty."

"Tell me more."

"Well, he calls himself Juan Rizal -- tells that to people whom he meets.... There is a sad story behind it. I will tell it to you:

"When Juan Kola was a small boy, his father was very cruel to him: he used to beat him for any or no reason at all. Naturally the boy grew to dislike his father -- learned to hate him as much as he feared him. But when the boy was twelve or thereabouts, the father died. The boy knew no happiness so great so that he cried. Otherwise the boy would
not have wept: he was so used to his father's meanness and cruelty that any sorrow, any pain, could not make him cry -- he had forgotten how to cry -- had learned to stifle that surging in the breast that brings tears to the eyes -- and he would merely whine, dry-eyed, like a kicked puppy. But this time he wept, and for a long time afterwards you could see him in the streets crying. And when people asked him why he cried, he replied, 'I don't know. I just want to cry.' He was not evading the truth, the boy simply had no words for it. But the people knew.

"Then the boy began thinking of Rizal. Rizal was born here, you know, and that makes him closer to us than to you who live elsewhere. Rizal to us is a reality, a magnificent, potent reality, but to you he is only a myth, a golden legend. He is to you a star, faraway, bright, unreachable. To us he is not unreachable for he is among us. We feel him, breathe with him, live with him. Juan Kola lived with him -- lives with him. In his young untutored mind he knew that if Rizal were his father he would be a good father, a supremely beautiful father -- and he, Juan Kola, would always be happy. And so Juan Kola, the little unhappy boy, made Jose Rizal his father.

"He was a poor boy, Juan Kola, and he could not go to school. He had to work and earn his living. He does not read nor write, but he knows much about Rizal's life from the school-teacher who boarded with the shoemaker to whom he was apprenticed. Of nights, when work was over, he would go to her, to this schoolteacher, and ask her questions --
and she, filled with sympathy for the boy, gave him of her time.

"When Juan's father died, he destroyed all his father's things. There was a picture left of his father, but he burned it, not wishing to remember anything of his true parent. He wanted to be fully the son of his adopted father. From then on he was the son of Rizal.

"And that," concluded my friend, "is the story of Juan Sira. The children have misnamed him: it is cruel, unjust. He who can dream of beautiful things, and live in them, surely he is great -- and wise."

"Take me to Juan Rizal," I said.

* * *

I presented my gift to Juan Rizal in his shabby, little nipa home.

Juan Rizal was exultant when he opened the package containing Rizal's bust. "I have always wanted one, but I could not afford it," he said with tremulous lips and adoring eyes.

And when I was to leave, he kissed my hands fervently and told his children to do the same. His eyes were wet but happy.

"God will reward you," he said, as I descended the narrow, rickety bamboo steps