3. Fagen hears another side of the story|
They passed beneath the drawbridge and marched to the edge of a vile, stinking
swamp, the surface of the water alive with gnats, biting flies and every other
floating and crawling insect. Two-dozen Filipino laborers stood under
a nearby tree leaning on their shovels. The Americans looked out at
the brackish water and shuddered in anticipation of what came next.
Sergeant Rivers ordered tools passed around. "We've got to get in there
and open up this swamp." He pointed to the group of Filipinos. "These
men have been recruited to help."
"The hell you say!" Youngblood's fists balled in outrage. In
his view they'd enough of that kind of work. Everyone felt like speaking
out, but Youngblood the only one young and foolish enough to challenge the
"The army says this backed-up water spreads fever," Rivers said. "We're going
to drain this area."
"Sergeant, this is a job I wouldn't give a dumb animal."
"The army's got details all over Manila doing this exact thing, Private. You
ain't picked on any worse than anybody else."
"Well, it's a hell of a thing!"
Rivers stood over the young Arkansan, a mean look on his face. "If
you feel the need to talk about this some more, Private," he growled, "we can
walk around that hill over there and settle it. Otherwise, fall out
and get to work."
Youngblood wasn't up for a fight. He knew Sergeant Rivers wouldn't
permit a challenge to his authority, and he concluded a few hours in a swamp
preferable to a month in the infirmary. The incident over, the men stripped
to the waist and moved slowly out into the muddy, brackish water. The
Filipino laborers moved past the Americans and spread out along a low, wide
berm. They toiled steadily, without complaint, grim-faced under their
broad-brimmed straw hats. David Fagen and Ellis Fairbanks took a spot
on a silt dyke bordering the river. Ellis said he reckoned the air would
be moving a little there. The digging was not hard, but the mosquitoes
and biting flies murderous. Difficult to find a rhythm, time dragged.
One of the Filipino laborers, a tiny man with a wooden spade much too big
for him, moved next to Fagen and Ellis. Not young - well past middle
age, his dark face was pockmarked and deeply lined, but he had perfect, straight
white teeth. "Do you see the mud more red than black? Rub it
on your body. It has an ingredient the mosquitoes don't like."
A local remedy? Native superstition? He might have said, "Tie
a horsehair around the middle finger of your left hand," but desperate, the
two soldiers tried it, and to their surprise it helped, and they thanked him. Soon
the little man told them more, talking while they worked. "Every year
the monsoon tides bring silt and a dam is created. The water gets trapped
inside and the swamp is formed. Soon the season will change, and the
river will wash this dyke back into the bay."
Ellis put down his shovel, "Are you saying the river's going to wash all this
away by itself? When?"
"Yes, very soon, but the Americans have not learned this yet." The
man stopped, wiped the inside of his hat with his shirtsleeve and squinted
up at the two Americans. "You are the first Negrito Americanos I
have seen. You're bigger than I thought you would be."
Fagen had never heard that term before, and if Ellis had, he didn't let on. He
still wrestled with the news that swamps came and went on their own. He
glanced over to make sure Sergeant Rivers was out of earshot, then he asked
the little Filipino, "You mean to say we don't need to be here doing
"Maybe you don't," the man said, "but I do. These are hard times my
friend. Work is where you find it."
The old man rested on his shovel and offered his hand. "My name is
Tomas. I am a silversmith. When the Spanish were here I made
beautiful jewelry for the soldiers to buy and send home to their sweethearts
and mothers. Don't get me wrong, the Spanish were no great lovers of
art. They never took my creations seriously or saw their beauty. To
them my pieces were only native curiosities, like picking up pretty shells
from a beach, but I could very often persuade them to spend a few pesos for
an interesting souvenir. Now, no one buys, and if it weren't for the
gifts nature brings, this little swamp, for example, there would be no work
at all, and many of us would starve."
"The army claims these swamps spread disease," Fagen said. "Didn't
the Spanish care about the fever?"
Tomas looked across to the mouth of the Pasig River. "Americans are more concerned
than the Spanish with matters of health and sanitation. The Spanish
knew where the fevers came from, but as long as enough of us worked their plantations,
it mattered nothing to them if the mosquito drank Filipino blood. The
Spanish valued the horse and the carabao as much as the peasant."
"You don't talk like a peasant. Where did you learn to speak English?"
"For many years I worked as a deck hand on British trading ships that sailed
between Hong Kong and Manila. The English know only their own language,
so Asian sailors have to learn it too. I also speak a little Chinese,
and of course Spanish and my native Tagalog."
The old man talked casually of his life and
the indignities his people had endured under foreign rule. He might
have been reporting on the condition of the crops, or the whitewash on his
neighbor's house. Caught up in the Filipino's story, Fagen moved closer
and pretended to work the sand at his feet.
Tomas continued. "Now, the Spanish are gone, and the peasants have no value
"But Tomas, you're a free man now," Ellis exclaimed. "Everything in
your life will change for the better."
Tomas chuckled. "You stand here before the walls of Fort Santiago and tell
me my life will get better? I am not so optimistic, Senor. Does
the prisoner care who his jailer is? The Spanish have ruled our land
for ten generations, and now the Americans have replaced them. The peasant's
life doesn't change. The average man does not benefit from his masters'
struggles for power."
Fagen thought of his own peoples' campaign for freedom at home and understood,
but Ellis didn't. Since he'd joined the army, he refused to believe
it did any wrong. "But the Americans aren't jailers! We came
here to free you from all that."
The old man pointed. "Just there, near the feet of St. James, are the
lower dungeons. The Spanish reserved these cells for the most dangerous
and subversive of their subjects. Hundreds of Filipino men and women,
perhaps thousands, have been imprisoned there, but always their stay was mercifully
short. Three times a month the highest tides in Manila Bay pushed the
river back and filled the cells. After a few hours, the guards had only
to open the doors and let the falling tide clean up for them. The horned
crabs did the rest. The lower dungeons are empty now. Will the
Americans fill them up again? Too soon to tell, amigo."
"No American would do something like that," Ellis insisted.
The old man picked up his shovel and stabbed at the red mud. "There
is a great leader among our people named Aguinaldo. For many years a
general in the war against Spanish tyranny, just a few months ago he was elected
President of the new, independent Filipino republic. Today, he has been
chased from his Presidential palace by your soldiers and hides in the jungle
with the wild animals. So you see, my Negrito friend, you
speak to me of freedom and a new life, but I think you Americans are not all
of the same mind."