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XIII
THE PREROGATIVE

LITTLE Carnota Roa was dead, and they were burying him.

The father came first, bearing the coffin on his shoulder. He was a mañangete; that is, for a living he climbed the coconut trees, hanging his buckets till full of tuba sap and then carrying them, balanced at the ends of a bamboo pole, seven miles to the pueblo, on the trot. This occupation had made him very strong, so that now he bore the little box as if it were a feather. It was a pretty coffin. On a frame of bamboo sticks they had stretched a new patadyon, bright red and yellow, and on this they had stuck rosettes of white, pink, and blue tissue paper. It was beautiful. The brother followed the father. He carried a big shovel for the hole that had to be dug over there, in the black ooze of the cemetery, amid bones of men and carabaos. He wore a camisa, but no pantaloons, for they were very poor. Behind the brother came the mother. From her armpits a flaming red patadyon fell to her naked feet, red being the colour that must be worn for children and Carnota being only six. In her left hand she carried a big, black cotton umbrella; in her right hand she carried a tallow candle. The tiny flame sputtered and crackled in the stifling air and a thread of vapour rose from it toward heaven, humble incense praying to the Great God for the little soul ascending to Him.

The forlorn procession, man with coffin, boy with shovel, woman with candle, wound through the high grass across the plaza. The passage of a ditch caused some disorder. From the coffin, leaping across on the man's shoulder, a pink-and-blue rosette fell. The woman picked it up and they stopped while she pinned it back with a bamboo thorn. During the operation the candle dropped and went out. The man laid the coffin down, scratched some matches and finally relit it. Meanwhile the boy sat down on the shovel. He was very small and the shovel was very big. At last the man picked up the coffin, the boy picked up the shovel, and they moved on to the church.

The church was closed, for the padres had been driven out by the revolution two years before and had never returned. So the coffin was laid on the ground at the great barred doors, a naïve little object begging for a mite of the holy emanation that still clung about the great building as some vague odour of incense. The mother let tallow drip upon the frame, then stuck the candle upright into it. She opened the big umbrella and set it down so that the stinging sun-rays of noon should not shine through the thin cloth of the coffin into the closed eyes of Carnota. The man crouched down against the church wall, the boy sat on the shovel, and the woman squatted on her heels by her husband.

It was noon, and the perpendicular sun dripped molten lead upon the land. The tin roof of the church crackled, white with heat; the tin roof of the school crackled back to it; the heat, reverberated from one to the other, fell into the space between, and the pink-and-blue rosettes on the coffin shrunk like sensitive things.

A big fly buzzed near and the woman wafted it away. A little fly struck the candle and boiled to death in the molten tallow. From a hole in the church wall a big gee-kaw lizard uttered his hoarse, spasmodic cry three times, then stopped, smothered by the heat. Ten feet away a carabao plumped into a mud hole with a cool, squashy sound. A heavy silence fell upon the plaza, punctuated only by the raucous breathing of a big American cavalry-horse, dying of the surra by the cuartel.

The door of the schoolhouse opened, and the Maestro came out. Almost at the same time the Lieutenant stepped out of the cuartel. He stopped to look at the horse and the Maestro joined him.

The animal, a big gray, was standing with his four legs wide apart, like the tripod of a camera. His ribs stood out like the ribs of a long-stranded derelict; his legs were puffed up as big as barrels, and a viscous fluid oozed from his nostrils. A cloud of flies buzzed about this already half-carrion flesh.

The Maestro looked into the patient, bulging, blood-shot eyes.

"He will die?" he asked.

"Yes, they all die," said the officer.

"Why don't you have it shot?"

The officer smiled, a trifle embarrassed.

"Well," he said, "you know they're great on red-tape in the army. If the horse dies naturally, the post-surgeon can fill out a comparatively brief report; if he orders it shot, he will have to write out some five foolscap pages. The Doc, you know, is pretty lazy; so he chooses the short report."

"I see," said the Maestro.

They separated. The forlorn group at the church door drew a shrug of the shoulders from the officer. The Maestro stopped and approached it.

The woman nudged the man with her elbow. "The Maestro!" she whispered, awestruck.

They scrambled to their feet and stood respectfully before him. Their downcast eyes peered at him half-anxious, half-wondering. For he was a strange person, the Maestro. Carnota had often told about him.

The first day he had come to school he had been very angry because, turning around upon the crash of a chart, upset by one of the boys in a sly antic, he had found all the index-fingers converging dutifully upon the abashed culprit.

He was very queer. He did not like the boys to tell on each other.

Every morning he made them go through violent movements with their arms, their legs, their bodies; and they were very tired, for the palay crop had failed and they had little in their stomachs.

But if he was queer at school, he was still more queer at home.

One Saturday afternoon, Carnota, peering with his brother into the Maestro's house, had retreated suddenly, very much awed and astonished.

For the Maestro, in his shirt sleeves, was insanely pounding away at a big, round ball that hung from the ceiling by a string. He hit and hit and hit, and the ball rebounded from his fist to the ceiling so fast that it sounded like the escribiente beating a bandillo upon his drum, only much louder.

The man and the woman stood before the Maestro, thinking of these things. And he stood before them, also thinking. He was before a result, and he wondered if it was good.

 

He thought of the little boy. He saw him again as he had seen him on his first day as Teacher of Balangilang—a little niño with a big round head sunk in between sharp shoulders, and big brown eyes that looked up into his own, half-scared, half-loving. He was a very little boy, Carnota, and his peculiar uncertainty of movement made him still more babyish. His face was dirty and his nose needed a handkerchief. His camisa was open in front, and the abdomen projected over the trouser-band in a soft roll of fat. Somehow that was what remained the most vividly in the Maestro's memory—the vision of that roll of baby-flesh that had suddenly filled his heart with unmanly softness.

That was the day of the "my" and "your" struggle.

"Do you see the hat?" the Maestro had asked.

"Yiss, I ssee dde hhett," staccattoed the class in answer.

"My hat," said the Maestro, pointing to his cap; "your hat," he said, pointing to the reduced version of a dilapidated nipa roof which served to cover Carnota's head. "Now, [pointing to his own], do you see my hat?"

"Yiss, I sse my hett," answered the urchin confidently.

"No, no," said the Maestro. "This is my hat, not your hat; it is my hat. Do you see my hat, my, my hat?"

"Yiss, I see my, my hhett," answered Carnota, his eyes alight with sweet obedience.

The Maestro paused and wiped his brow with his handkerchief.

"Now, let us begin again," he went on with determination in his eye. "My hat, your hat; your hat, my hat. This is my hat; this is your hat. Now, show me your hat."

"Your hat," said Carnota, pointing to his own.

"No, no, that is not my hat; that is your hat; this is my hat, that is your hat. Now, show me my hat, my hat."

"My hat, my hat!" shouted Carnota, triumphantly pointing to the Maestro's.

"Oh, Lordy," muttered the Maestro. He looked down half-angrily. Two brown eyes and an uplifted nose were turned up toward him in absolute, admiring confidence, and his annoyance flew away as by enchantment. But he could not bear to disillusion the child with further elucidation, so it was many days before Carnota ceased mixing his pronouns with calm unconcern.

 

He forced his thoughts onward to later and less pleasant memories.

First had come the cattle-pest, which had killed all the carabaos; then the surra, which had killed all the horses; then the drought, just at palay-sowing, baking the ground so hard that the wooden plows made only derisive scratches. Now, it is true, the cholera was coming down the coast to restore the balance. But it should have come first. The palay crop had failed and there was nothing to eat.

There had been little to eat for weeks, and the children had begun to droop and wither. Every morning the Maestro cursed under his breath as he looked upon his waning audience. He could do little more than swear, for it would have taken a hundred times his salary to feed them all, and half of that went home religiously every month to a younger brother who was playing end on the Yale team. So, not being able to help them all, he had come to the determination to feed none. Which did not prevent him from smuggling little Carnota into his house every morning, to send him forth again with grains of mush sticking to his nose.

But this did not stop Carnota's head from sinking daily deeper between his shoulders nor the peculiar uncertainty of movements to gain and gain on him till, sometimes, when walking, he would fall suddenly without cause, as if he had stepped into a hole.

The attendance dropped and dropped, and the Maestro did not like to look at his reports. At last, one morning, Carnota himself failed to come to school. He did not come the next day, nor the next. The Maestro went to the tumble-down nipa shack by the river. He found the boy lying on a mat, on the bamboo floor. He could not move.

"Yiss, I ssee dde hhett," he murmured when the Maestro asked him how he felt.

The Maestro went to see the Post-Surgeon. But the Post-Surgeon had been in the Philippines four years. That is, his ideal of life now was to slop about his room all day in a kimona, smoking cigarette after cigarette and drinking whiskey-and-soda after whiskey-and-soda. To go out and see a sick child, especially when that sick child happened to have a brown skin, demanded an effort absolutely colossal for the corroded shreds of his moral strength. It took several days of begging, remonstrance, appeal, almost threats to galvanize the dead fibres. At last the Doctor slipped into a khaki and walked a hundred yards with the Maestro to the hut by the river.

He examined the boy with a vague, returning ghost of professional interest.

"Curvature of the spine," he said at length.

"No cure?" asked the Maestro.

"No, he'll die; it may take several years."

"Will he suffer?"

The surgeon pointed to the child. The little body was vibrating in exquisite torture and cold beads of sweat were welling up on the stoical Malay face.

That night the Maestro went to the Post Hospital and asked the steward for some morphine.

"The dose is——" the steward started to say, giving him the pellets.

"I know, I know," the Maestro broke out hastily. "I've used it often."

He did not know the dose, but he did not want to know it.

He went back to Carnota. He found him with his sharp knees pressed tight against his chin.

He gave him several pellets. He did not know what was the proper dose, but he knew that this one was surely a highly improper one, and that is all he wanted to know.

The little boy had gone to sleep with a deep, restful sigh.

And now he was there, beneath the pink-and-blue rosettes.

The man and the woman were becoming uneasy beneath the vacant-eyed scrutiny of the Maestro. Finally the father stooped, wound his arms about the coffin, and looked up questioningly into the Maestro's face.

"Yes," nodded the Maestro, "I will go with you."

The man heaved the coffin to his shoulder. The boy took the shovel, the woman the candle, and they started in a file. The Maestro followed and took the shovel from the boy.

At the cemetery the father began to dig in the black ooze, but the Maestro stopped him. He led them to a little knoll close by beneath a giant mango tree. The soil was dry there, and, taking off his jacket, the Maestro toiled till a little hole was ready.

They lowered the paper-frilled box into it, then they scraped back the earth. The father went into the jungle and came back with a cross made of two bamboo sticks. He planted the cross and the Maestro placed a few stones about it.

Then they walked back to the pueblo.

"Are you very sad?" asked the Maestro of the woman.

"Oho," she answered, "muy triste."

But she had not understood the question. She had had nine children, and eight were buried. As far back as she could remember Death had never let by a year without entering her hut. She had long ceased feeling.

They came to the plaza. The old cavalry horse was still standing as before, his swollen legs spread in a wide base, his head dropped to the ground, his patient, bulging eyes red with blood. His rattling, dolorous breath, above the humming undertone of carrion-flies, was the only break in the heated silence.

The Maestro looked at the animal. His chin dropped to his chest.

He raised his head with a sharp movement and walked on.

"I have done well," he said.