By: Greg Brillantes
From the upstairs veranda, Dr. Lazaro had a view of stars, the country darkness, the lights on the distant highway at the edge of town. The phonograph in the sala played Chopin – like a vast sorrow controlled, made familiar, he had wont to think. But as he sat there, his lean frame in the habitual slack repose took after supper, and stared at the plains of night that had evoked gentle images and even a kind of peace (in the end, sweet and invincible oblivion), Dr. Lazaro remembered nothing, his mind lay untouched by any conscious thought, he was scarcely aware of the April heat; the pattern of music fell around him and dissolved swiftly, uncomprehended. It was as though indifference were an infection that had entered his blood it was everywhere in his body. In the scattered light from the sala his angular face had a dusty, wasted quality, only his eyes contained life. He could have remained there all evening, unmoving, and buried, it is were, in a strange half-sleep, had his wife not come to tell him he was wanted on the phone.
Gradually his mind stirred, focused; as he rose from the chair he recognized the somber passage in the sonata that, curiosly, made him think of ancient monuments, faded stone walls, a greyness. The brain filed away an image; and arrangement of sounds released it… He switched off the phonograph, suppressed and impatient quiver in his throat as he reached for the phone: everyone had a claim on his time. He thought: Why not the younger ones for a change? He had spent a long day at the provincial hospital.
The man was calling from a service station outside the town – the station after the agricultural high school, and before the San Miguel bridge, the man added rather needlessly, in a voice that was frantic yet oddly subdued and courteous. Dr. Lazaro thad heard it countless times, in the corridors of the hospitals, in waiting rooms: the perpetual awkward misery. He was Pedro Esteban, the brother of the doctor’s tenant in Nambalan, said the voice, trying to make itself less sudden remote.
But the connection was faulty, there was a humming in the wires, as though darkness had added to the distance between the house in the town and the gas station beyond the summer fields. Dr. Lazaro could barely catch the severed phrases. The man’s week-old child had a high fever, a bluish skin; its mouth would not open to suckle. They could not take the baby to the poblacion, they would not dare move it; its body turned rigid at the slightest touch. If the doctor would consent to come at so late an hour, Esteban would wait for him at the station. If the doctor would be so kind…
Tetanus of the newborn: that was elementary, and most likely it was so hopeless, a waste of time. Dr. Lazaro said yes, he would be there; he had committed himself to that answer, long ago; duty had taken the place of an exhausted compassion. The carelessness of the poor, the infected blankets, the toxin moving toward the heart: they were casual scribbled items in a clinical report. But outside the grilled windows, the night suddenly seemed alive and waiting. He had no choice left now but action: it was the only certitude – he sometimes reminded himself – even if it would prove futile, before, the descent into nothingness.
His wife looked up from her needles and twine, under the shaded lamp of the bedroom; she had finished the pullover for the grandchild in Bagiuo and had begun work, he noted, on another of those altar vestments for the parish church. Religion and her grandchild certainly kept her busy … She looked at him, into so much to inquire as to be spoken to: a large and placid woman.
“Shouldn’t have let the drive go home so early,” Dr. Lazaro said. “They had to wait till now to call … Child’s probably dead…”
“Ben can drive for you.”
“I hardly see that boy around the house. He seems to be on vacation both from home and in school.”
“He’s downstairs,” his wife...