Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Strange but True Account of Don Miguel de Saavedra

A work-in-progress of a short story that I'm submitting for a Talecraft contest. Not yet done, still has to go through severe editing (I have a 1,000-word maximum limit). Will probably take it down once it's complete. Anyway, for your reading pleasure, here's what I have so far:

The Strange But True Account of Don Miguel de Saavedra in His Last Days


Fray Guillermo:

Tomorrow it will be seven years since the fateful events that I now relate to you transpired. In the main, the story as it has been recorded in journals and letters is true; all save for one account. It is a grave injustice to let it stand. I can bear it no longer. How can I look upon myself if I remain in shameful silence?

My tale concerns Don Miguel de Saavedra, widely reviled as a coward and a traitor. I can assure you that he is neither, for I have seen his valiance and bravery. Such is the weight I have borne these years for my complicity in untruth!

Don Miguel, as you know, was born in Buenos Aires. Taking up a career in the army, he took a commission to the Filipinas. He arrived in 1638 or 1639 (there are conflicting records of this) and was stationed with the garrison in our settlement in Cebu. Under constant threat of Moro raiding parties, it was a difficult position but from the accounts of his compatriots there, Don Miguel was an able soldier.

Alas! if Don Miguel sought fame and fortune in these islands, he had certainly come to the wrong place. Don Miguel led several expeditions among the Joloans and the Caragas in which distinguished himself. That disastrous adventure in 1645 of which we all know so well was his undoing. The inquest eventually cleared him of all charges, but his disgrace was complete. He was reassigned to Samal with the intent to repatriate him to Argentina.

It was a wreck of a man that I first met in Samal. As you know, aside from my priestly duties I also serve as doctor to the garrison. The captain requested that I examine Don Miguel upon his arrival. Physically, he was in excellent health; but he said little and eyed everyone with suspicion. He was like a wild animal in a cage, wary and ready to spring at a moment's notice.

But most surprising of all were two companions who never left his side. One was a young man of about twenty, and the other a young girl. They caused a stir for from the look of them they were Moros! The young man, in particular, face marked with deliberate scars and tattoos, was a fearsome savage.

The captain objected to these companions, but the flash in Don Miguel's eyes said he would brook no argument. They were his servants, he said, and they had been brought into the Faith. No one dared to confirm this claim.

At first, Don Miguel and his companions kept mostly to themselves, but the natural warmth of the Kapampangan indios gradually coaxed them out of their solitude. How strange it was to see a European -- even a criollio -- mix so freely with the natives! It seemed that Don Miguel preferred their company to his own compatriots.

Don Miguel and the young Moro, whose name he said was Enrique, taught the indios a peculiar way to fight with a knife. It was like a dance, with low swooping kicks and rapid slashing arcs. He said he learned it among the Cebuanos. Our soldiers laughed it off, saying it was nothing to their muskets; but as always, bravado masks fear.

We had, it turned out, much reason to fear in those days. Galleons long anticipated were overly delayed; and ultimately, they never arrived at all. And yet there were no storms for it was not the season. Rumors started among the people: fishermen would report seeing men-of-war over the distant horizon. They did not carry the Spanish flag. It was not until June 1647 that what we dreaded most came to pass: it was then that the Dutch arrived.

Without warning the Dutch ships swooped down on neighboring Abucay. The situation was dire: our scouts reported eight ships in all. With little resistance, they bombarded the fortifications and landed marines on its shores. From Samal we could see the black billowing smoke. It was terrible! Terrible! Fleeing villagers reported that the schismatic devils had burned down the church and slew everyone in sight.

What to do? After Abucay, Samal was certainly next. We had no warships in port, and the nearest ones from Manila were two days away -- if they ever arrived at all. We held council with the garrison captain. The decision was clear: we had to run into the hinterlands.

Yet in the face of it there were objections from the Kapampangans. Fearful they were, yes, but also furious. In Abucay they had blood relations, now likely dead from the hands of the Dutch privateers. A Captain Aguas hatched a bold plan: under cover of darkness they would assault the Dutch. With what? the garrison captain laughed. With their bancas? If need be, said Captain Aguas. It was sheer bold madness, but Captain Aguas rallied some eighty brave souls around him, among them Don Miguel. As for myself, I elected to stay in the garrison to tend to any wounded.

As they made their preparations, Don Miguel entrusted the Moro girl to my care. There was a loud argument with Enrique, but they used a language I did not understand. Don Miguel apparently wanted Enrique to stay behind, but the youth was adamant. Finally, Don Miguel relented.

They launched into the night, silent and grim, these eighty Kapampangans in their flimsy bancas. Some had muskets and pistols, but most carried only bolos and knives. How many would return I did not know. I prayed to Our Mother in Heaven for their safety; but I confess I found in me no faith, only futility.

The slow hours passed. Overnight, Samal had become a ghost town. A few women huddled in the garrison infirmary for they, like me, had decided to stay behind. As for me, I was so consumed by worry that I held vigil on the beach with the Moro girl.

In the distance I heard a sound as of thunder. It was cannonfire. Then another, and another. They came in such rapid succession that I lost count. Bursts of orange flame pierced the night. I knew not how long the exchange lasted. As suddenly as it began it ended. Once more all I could hear was the crash of the waves on the shore and the swaying of the coconut trees in the breeze.

Overcome by despair, I fell weeping on the sand. The Moro girl, true to her warrior heritage, betrayed no emotion except for the tight clasp of her small arms around my neck. I held on to her for comfort, all the while searching the sea for a sign, any sign.

At last it came, the small dots of fishing lamps swaying across the waves. But were they our contingent? Or Dutch marines come to complete our destruction? Part of me wanted to run to the safety of the garrison; but I had to know.

The lights came ever closer until I heard voices. Kapampangan voices! The Moro girl and I rushed into the surf to meet the bancas. I waved our torch as I cried out in joyous welcome.

Just as quickly my joy turned to sorrow. In the flicker of the torchlight, I saw blood on the faces of the wounded, wrenched in agony. The most serious of all: Enrique, head cradled in the lap of Don Miguel. Enrique's left side was ripped by shrapnel. His clothes lay in tatters, blackened by a mix of wood, powder, and blood. The Moro girl ululate balefully as she reached for Enrique.

This, as I gathered later from various accounts, was what happened: Captain Aguas and his men in their silent bancas approached the Dutch warships undetected. With the main force in Abucay, the ships were guarded only by a handful of sailors. They clambered up the towlines and surprised the crew. They slit the throats of unsuspecting victims until their assault was uncovered, at which point it became an all-out melee.

Finally, the Kapampangans

--Fray Raphael

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