The Dapitan School Boy
April 12, 1947
by Patricia Laurel
We’re expecting the arrival of Doña Trinidad Rizal, the only surviving sister of Dr. Jose P. Rizal.
The war has been over for two years. We are slowly getting back to the business of living; with so many precious lives lost, Filipinos struggle to rebuild the destruction the Japanese Empire and American bombs and battles brought to our shores.
Months after peace was declared we saw the newsreel of Japan’s surrender. Our people gathered in the town hall to watched a group of Japanese diplomatic and military representatives on board the Battleship USS Missouri. They bowed formally and complied with the shameful business of surrender. They listened stoically to General Douglas MacArthur’s speech, and behind him were high-ranking American and British officers, a representative from China and the crew of the ‘Mighty Mo’.
There were no Filipino representatives. It felt like, once again, our abused country, after centuries of foreign control, was on the auction block.
My beloved maestro’s country was being tossed back and forth like a ball over a great, tangled net of bloody politics and intrigue.
Not a single day goes by that I do not recall the precious time I spent living, learning and loving Dr. Jose Protacio Rizal. But his end was such a tragic waste. The final days in Manila were when I learned about the great risk of giving someone a place in your heart, and what real heartbreak can be.
I remember going to market in Manila after my friends and I were arrested and questioned by the Guardia Civil. The pain from the torture did not compare to the tremendous sense of loss I felt after Dr. Rizal’s execution. I didn’t care whether I lived or died; I was sick in my soul.
The market was subdued. I didn’t speak Tagalog very well, and it was unlikely that any of the vendors could speak the language of Zamboanga, so I asked a woman for a kilo of fruit in Spanish.
Everything grew very quiet and all heads turned in my direction. I still remember the looks of hatred I received that day.
“You shameful, gutless creature!” The vendor cried out in Tagalog. “You dare to speak their language here? Don’t you know we have just lost a man we will never see again?”
Instead of trying to explain, I ran away. How could I tell her the man she spoke of embraced me like a son? I was too distracted to tell her that he was my teacher who brought me to Manila to further my education. I covered my face of welts and bruises as I fled.
Grief makes us blind.
Ever since we had left Dapitan, it seemed as if I were moving through a dream. I, who had never left my tiny island, on a great adventure in the magnificent city of Manila with my maestro and other boys.
We stayed at the beautiful home of Doña Narcissa, which seemed as splendid as a palace to me. But there was fear and talk of rebellion everywhere.
Then the great betrayal, when everything turned to blood, tears and treachery.
Instead of being allowed to serve in Cuba, the maestro was accused of treason and imprisoned in Fort Santiago for two months, on trial for his life. I visited him sometimes alone, taking him food or messages from the family; sometimes with his sisters. Every time I went into the massive stone fortress, I felt like some great-unseen hand was lowering me into the underworld.
But the maestro always put on a brave face, thanking me for the meal, instructing me in my studies, telling me to be sure to visit his beloved Josephine, to make sure she was safe.
Of course, my heart raced every time I laid eyes on her, but her thoughts, prayers and tears were only for him. My love for her was so painful; it only brought hopelessness, despair and guilt. How could I long for her when my maestro, who she and I so truly loved, was in such terrible danger?
I still have tender thoughts about sweet Josephine, my first love. She was the one who raised the first stirrings of romantic curiosity and manhood in a young boy. The last time I saw her was immediately after the execution. I had no idea of how to console her. I never saw her again.
Since then I have thought of it many times. Life is hard enough with all its troubles and pain. Why must love be brutal as well?
The night before the execution, his family and I went to say goodbye in his gloomy quarters. I went to one of the large windows and pressed my face into the iron bars to hide my tears, unable to look at him. I couldn’t bear it.
But I heard him tell his sobbing mother and sisters to be brave, to never give in to despair. He said death did not matter when a man was dying for those he loved and his country.
The Spanish guards looked at each other and then looked away.
My maestro, so brave, noble and pure of heart. How could the world let him die?
I was too heartsick, too full of grief, to pay much attention as he gave them his pocket watch for Moris and items for his other nephews.
But when I turned to look at him, he was standing by the table, with one hand on a lantern and the other on his sister’s shoulder, whispering in her ear in English, which the guards could not understand.
He told her: “There’s something in the lantern.”
Afterward, of course, when his possessions finally were delivered to the family, his sisters found his great farewell to his countrymen the poem “Mi Ultimo Adios,” hidden in the lantern.
“Our Eden lost!” Those words from the poem are burned into my heart.
We sat in the house late at night, writing out copies of the poem so his country would know.
I was there at Bagumbayan when the firing squad shot him down at daybreak on December 30, 1896.
At his execution, I kept hoping I would wake up and find it was all a nightmare.
Even now it is still like a dream to me, every piece in place, arranged like some hideous theater scene in the bright sunshine. The bearded Spanish officers all in white with their swords; the firing squad of Filipino soldiers with their trembling rifles trained on the man who would become our national hero. And behind them, the Spanish soldiers with their rifles, ready to kill any members of the firing squad who refused to shoot Rizal.
The black robed priest; the shouted orders breaking the silence of dread.
And my maestro, ramrod straight in his suit and hat, with his back turned to the firing squad, forced to stand that way so they could shoot him in the back like a traitor.
At the ultimate moment, as the officer yelled to fire, Rizal wheeled about as the bullets struck him in the back. Later, it was said that the Filipino soldiers who killed him said Rizal had a peaceful expression, almost a smile, when he looked at them through the haze of gun smoke.
All the others, the ones who thought they had the power, are forgotten. But he lives on in millions of hearts.
I ran back to the Rizal house like a crazy man. The shots ringing in my ears; the taste of tears and gunpowder in my mouth; blood before my eyes.
The Spanish, cruel to the end, tried to hide the body, to bury him secretly in an unmarked grave.
That day and into the night, his sister Doña Narcissa and I searched the city’s graveyards. Eventually we made our way to a small graveyard called Paco Cemetery. Spanish soldiers stood guard at the gate.
Wrapped in a shawl to hide her face, Doña Narcissa whispered to me in the darkness: “See Joselito, soldiers, why would the Guardia Civil be here?”
We waited until they all left and searched until we found the fresh grave. Buried like a murderer in a ditch with no blessing, no sacrament.
She had brought a tiny plaque marked with RPJ, her brother’s initials reversed and I marked the spot in the moonless night. I wept for my maestro until my tears didn’t taste of salt.
All of these images swam through my mind as I ran blindly from the market, the curses of the fruit vendor and the angry crowd.
Doña Trinidad’s visit is the first in 50 years. The last time she was here with her mother Doña Teodora, and sister, Doña Maria, and her two children.
She is waiting at the dock with her traveling companion, when I arrive.
Memories from a bittersweet long ago flood my mind. I wipe my eyes before approaching Doña Trinidad, the now frail woman who lived her life unmarried, without children. I wonder if she is at peace and whether she forgave Maria.
She holds a bayong box, squinting at me, then smiling as she recognizes the boy she used to know.
I greet her with respect by placing my forehead to her hand. She is the last member of the Rizal family and my remaining link to the man I would have followed even in death.
As if I were still a boy, Doña Trinidad pats my graying hair affectionately. Her voice cracks: “Joselito, after all these years …”
I take the bayong box and help her up the waiting calesa. She quickly takes the box back and holds it fast, requesting that her companion be driven ahead to my house with her suitcase.
“Joselito, I would like for just the two of us to visit my brother’s place now.”
“Are you sure, Doña Trining?” I use the familiar term of her first name; we addressed her as Señorita all those years ago. “Talisay is not what it used to be. It has been abandoned these past 50 years due to neglect and the war.”
“I think I know what I’ll see,” she says.
Still clinging to the box, she clasps my hand tightly with her other hand during the ride. Maybe for her I am the remaining semblance of the Dapitan that used to be.
Despite her lowered expectations of Talisay after so long a time, Doña Trinidad gasps at the sight that greets her.
The last surviving sister of my maestro surveys the ruins of her brother’s paradise prison where he spent nearly five years of his life, which was far too short. The desolation of Talisay overwhelms us.
My maestro’s house had been ransacked, and lies in total disrepair; pieces of it on the earth, not even sufficient for firewood. The boys’ dormitory and the hospital stand in ruins. The aqueduct we helped build that snaked in between the structures and garden to carry fresh spring water from the mountain to the house and other buildings is dried up and crusted with thick mud; the wooden brick-making machine he invented is nowhere to be found.
All belongs to the ravenous ivy, which overruns everything.
The Baluno tree, with its inedible mango fruit, the king that towered over all the other trees, stands in mourning for the loss of someone so precious. This majestic tree by the maestro’s house is where we spent days on end listening and learning, where I hid behind its huge trunk and jealously watched my first love, Josephine, being courted by the maestro, wishing I were grown up. Full of yearning and at the same time, feeling guilty of being jealous of the man I worshipped.
Somewhere here the maestro buried their son, Fernando.
Even the gigantic rock where he composed the poem for his mother, Mi Retiro, is covered with slimy moss and seaweed that washed ashore. He used to sit there often gazing out to sea, submerged in his own world.
I realize why Doña Trinidad didn’t want anyone else with us. She betrays the stoic nature of the Rizal women as tears flow down her cheeks. She could only share this very private moment with someone she trusts.
“The owner of Talisay is gone forever,” she says.
I hold the trembling old woman and we stand there and weep together, lost in our memories.
I saw myself as the boy Joselito with the maestro and his friends; Fernando, Romulo, Mateo and the two Joses frolicking on the sand, fencing with our wooden swords; planting; studying; assisting with the parade of patients seeking a cure from Dr. Rizal.
The boy eavesdropping and listening to snatches of conversations the maestro had with the adults; my walks with him and the vital lessons that have sustained me all these years.
Learning and observing my beloved teacher in everything was my boyhood passion: his demeanor and the way he spoke; his display of love and loyalty for his family and country; his stories, writings and his art works; his sadness upon hearing the death of his childhood sweetheart; Lenore, his forbidden, yet open, tender love for Josephine.
I declared to my family and friends that I would be like Dr. Jose Rizal when I became a grown man, at the same time secretly wishing that Josephine would transfer her affections to me.
Only my mother knew my heart was sick, and she didn’t laugh at me.
The two Spanish commandants, his jailers, who became fast friends of the maestro, Ricardo Carnicero and Juan Sitges; Father Franciso de Paula Sanchez, the unwilling priest sent to persuade his former student back to the church, and who loved him like a son; the farmers and fishermen who came from everywhere to learn ways to improve their skill with the land and the sea; the spy or what some said assassin sent by the friars.
The kind but stubborn Doña Teodora who refused to follow her son’s instructions after her eye surgery; Narcissa, the only sister that kindly accepted Josephine; Maria the feisty, suspicious, emancipated woman who endured the accusations of her two unmarried sisters, one who stands beside me now, sobbing.
Ah, Josephine, you were the woman of my young dreams, with the light hair and milky white skin and the adorable pout on your face when you were displeased. You knew to keep quiet when the maestro rebuked you. The hurt on your pretty face when he confronted you about being a spy for the church was too much for me to bear.
I heard you married, but you also died young. Did you die of heartbreak from the loss of your great love and the baby who was not meant to live? My wish is that you and your ‘Joe’ are somewhere happily together.
The memories keep washing over me like the tide of the sea, relentless, merciless.
My parents visiting the school talking with the maestro like old friends, the formality set aside; my mother stubbornly refusing to obey the priests when they threatened expulsion from the church because her son was a student of Dr. Rizal.
My father, finally happy his dream for his son was fulfilled, proudly beaming that his Joselito was receiving the best education from a man he deeply respected.
They are all gone and I am left with the sorrow for which there is no cure but the grave.
A tender pat on my cheek brings me back to the present. Doña Trinidad wipes her eyes.
“Did you let go of the sadness in your heart, Joselito?”
“I have learned to live with the sadness all these years. It’s the longing and yearning for the wondrous and happy days gone by that is sometimes hard to bear here.” I touch my heart.
“My brother, Paciano, hardly uttered a word after Pepe’s public execution, and he hurt the most. Neither of them knew they were imprisoned at Fort Santiago around the same time, before Pepe was wrongly accused and sentenced to death. He was never aware that his older brother was being beaten within an inch of his life by the Guardia Civil in one of their torture chambers.
“Kuya Ciano was sent home barely alive. We think the friars were afraid of the consequences of having two dead Rizal brothers.
“You see, our kuya Ciano had to be strong for all of us, although, his eyes spoke of the tremendous sorrow he felt inside. Once, when I stayed at his house in Los Baños (he refused to live in Calamba again), I saw him weeping when he thought I wasn’t looking. He was in the middle of translating Pepe’s novel, Noli Me Tangere, in Tagalog. Unfortunately, the unfinished translation was lost in a fire in his house in Manila during the war.
“Paciano Rizal is the family’s unsung hero.”
There is no bitterness in her words, only grief.
I venture to ask my question, hoping it won’t offend but mentally cringing. “Have you forgiven your sister, Maria?”
She turns the chilling look upon me, the glaring and punishing eyes that only the Rizal women master — then she laughs long and loud.
“You were always the curious one, weren’t you? The boy Pepe said eavesdropped on conversations not meant for his ears.”
“He knew? You all knew?”
“Pepe said one day you would write about his incarceration in Dapitan. You were going to be the chronicler of the time spent here with him and your schoolmates. He also said you were hopelessly in love with Josephine, and he didn’t make of fun you.”
“He said that?” I am incredulous. “I did write my memoirs in Spanish. My son Fernando is translating it.”
She nods her approval.
“Back to your question about Maria and whether I’ve forgiven her. She’s my sister and I love her. Josefa and I may have blamed her for leaving her husband and returning home with her two children, and ruining our chances of finding husbands.
“But that was so long ago, and it took many years for me to understand Maria's reasons for leaving. I do regret taking out my frustrations on her children some of the time.
“I received news of what happened to Moris, his son and son-in-law and the male employees of his household towards the end of the war. I am so grieved.”
She looked sadly at me. “Japanese soldiers took the men and they were never seen again. Maria wasn’t told of her son’s death, as she was already very ill. Did you know she was there in the house? Thank goodness the women had the sense to escape.
“Moris’ sister, Encarnacion, was inconsolable. She left San Pablo and braved the streets of Manila, looking for him. She loved her brother so much. The sad thing is, due to a misunderstanding, they hadn’t spoken to each other in a while.”
I could still picture Encarnacion, always protective of her brother, holding his hands, walking and playing with their uncle while their mother tended to her brother’s house and their mother.
I remembered how young Moris inadvertently caused Josephine to lose her baby, and the sadness of seeing my maestro bury his son in the darkness of night.
“Yes, Joselito,” she said. “I forgave Maria a long time ago.
“And now, I think we should go to your house. It was long journey, and I need to rest my aching bones.”
I escort her back to the calesa, and take her to my home. I introduce her to my wife and children, and give her a copy of my memoir.
“I’m not a writer like my maestro, but the story is told truthfully and honestly.”
Doña Trining thanks me graciously.
For the rest of her visit, we only talk of pleasant memories. She sleeps in her brother’s bed that was given to me by her sister, Doña Narcissa, and reads my copy of the maestro’s farewell poem, Mi Ultimo Adios.
During the visit, she sells the maestro’s other 16 hectares that used to have fields of abaca and corn. It is in the valley of the pristine Decayo River, which always reminded the maestro of his Calamba youth.
It takes an hour to reach it from the coast by boat. Maestro said that the river was clear as the Pansol and in some areas wider than the Pasig River.
It was there he planned to build a big house for his family. Another dream unfulfilled.
Doña Trining sold the property to the son of my old schoolmate, Fernando Eguia for 5,000 pesos.
On her last day, she asks me to fetch the bayong box she held like a piece of treasure.
“Open it, Joselito.”
I lift the lid of the woven box made from the buri palm and see the terno and the shoes that held Josephine’s tiny feet.
The skirt is pale orange with a top made of piña cloth. It wasn’t a formal terno with all the frills, but she wore it here, in Dapitan.
“I didn’t know what to do with her things,” Doña Trinidad says. “When it was time for me to come here, I remembered Josephine’s box. I felt you would be the right person to receive these items.”
Her visit lasts a few weeks. Too soon and with a heavy heart I take my maestro’s sister to the dock to say goodbye. She embraces me as if she will never let me go, whispers in my ear.
“I will never forget you, Joselito.”
“As I will always keep the memories we share alive in my heart,” I promise.
I wave at the small boat taking my last link to an incredible family to the liner waiting offshore, blasting its steam whistle, impatient for its passengers.
Time and the tides wait for no one.
I wave until my arm hurts, and my precious guest waves back. Finally her boat is a dot on the horizon.
I stand on the shore, the tears falling; waving until the ship hauls up its rusty anchor chain, blasts its hoarse whistle one more time, and sails away.
© Patricia Laurel