repost: “The Beggar Prince” column article by Patricia Evangelista

METHOD TO MADNESS

The Beggar Prince by Patricia Evangelista

Philippine Daily Inquirer

My name is Saturnino. I was born Nov. 29, 1964, in Calambayungan, Camarines Norte. My father was a fisherman. There were 13 of us children in the family; only two of us graduated from high school.

I went to Palawan in 1984. I got married, had four children, two sons and two daughters. I couldn’t support them with what I was making as a fisherman. I went to my brother-in-law, and he taught me how to make dynamite.

The first time, I liked it. One blast and we would get six basins of fish. It was harder after a while. We nearly burst our lungs diving for the dead fish. We used our own breath when we dived. I would dive almost 60 meters, then crawl maybe another 50 before I let myself float up. It was hard to dive that deep. When you hit about 35 meters you can’t dive straight down, you have to slide diagonally so the water won’t crush your chest. You hold your nose and let the air out of your ears to relieve the pressure. Sometimes I stayed underwater maybe two minutes. If you’re used to it you can go longer.

I did it every night for two weeks. We used light to attract the small fish. Then we would kill them with dynamite and wait for the big fish to come after the dead ones.

Life didn’t really get better. I didn’t earn very much. What I earned in those two weeks wasn’t very much, because the ingredients for dynamite are very expensive and then there was the rental for the boat.

One of my brothers died suddenly of tetanus at the end of those two weeks. On the night before his burial, I went out to sea so there would be money for food for the mourners. There were two of us; the other one was a first-timer. We took the boat to where the big fish were, near the corals. It must have been over 120 meters deep. I set the lights. We waited an hour for the fish to come. I had 19 sticks of dynamite. Eighteen were behind me. I had one in my hand. I lit a cigarette and used it to light the dynamite stick. The wick was about two inches long. That was 7:30 p.m. It was drizzling, and the wick was damp. I decided to cut down the wick. I had the knife in my left hand, the dynamite in my right. When I started cutting through the wick, the whole thing exploded in my hands.

I flew up, then landed on the boat. I was lucky. But there was a hole in my neck, and on my lower leg. Even now you can see some of the bone. One of my fingers went into my left eye. I didn’t lose consciousness, because I was with a rookie and we wouldn’t have gotten out alive if I did. We were lucky the 18 other sticks of dynamite didn’t explode behind me. I stood up. I didn’t want to die and the boy didn’t know how to get home. I saw the veins from my hand wrapped around two of my fingers that were cut off. My hands were gone. I could see my own pulse pumping. I had the boy wrap my torn shirt around the stumps of my arms to stanch the bleeding, but we couldn’t do anything about the hole in my neck. I told him to stick the tiller under my arm and tie my arms to my body with a long rope so I could stay upright and turn the boat. We raced down to the ports, I was steering for about an hour and a half.

At the pier I aimed the boat at the Coast Guard stand, hit it with the prow so they would know somebody needed help. It took four of them to carry me into a tricycle. One of the veins where my hand used to be was dragging on the ground; the men didn’t know they were stepping on it as we walked. I didn’t feel anything. My whole body was numb.

They put me on a wheelchair at the hospital. They made me admit I used dynamite before they treated me. I knew it was illegal but I said it anyway. The doctor pulled the finger out of my left eye and the blood came out. My head felt like it was exploding, the sound of the dynamite was still in my head, pounding away. They carried me to a bed and I heard people saying to just let me bleed out and die, because there was no way I would survive.

But I was still alive the next day, and the next. My wife arrived and she fainted when she saw me. She only stayed a week, because the waters were dangerous and we had babies at home and they barely had anything to eat. It was an old man recovering from a knife wound who would help feed me and wash me. I wanted to kill myself. I kept looking at the steel bars sticking out of the wall, thinking if I jumped on them I would die. But I couldn’t brace myself enough to jump. I didn’t have hands. I kept thinking my oldest was in second grade, my youngest was a few months old.

I stayed in the hospital a month and a half. When I went home I knew I couldn’t stay because I was a burden. Then someone told me I could go to Manila, that there were places that take care of people like me. I went with my son; we moved from transient house to transient house until we were brought to a shelter for the disabled. It was a roof over our heads.

We were standing one day outside Quiapo church. A woman handed me an envelope with P5,000 inside. We were stunned. I saved the money, and the begging started there. I would sit in the underpass and wait for people to put coins in my plastic cup. I was sitting there when I saw my wife wandering about. She had come to Manila from Palawan looking for me. At first it was the two of us working. She washed clothes for money, until we found out she had a cyst in her breast and that the work made it worse.

I have been a beggar for almost 10 years. I would sit all day on my small chair with a cup hanging around my neck. On a good day I make around P300. At Christmastime I get lucky and take home maybe P400. Some people give and some people don’t, and I hear them say I’m part of a syndicate and I don’t say anything even if I’m not. Some say I should find work, and I don’t say anything either because who would hire me, when I can’t even give myself a bath? There are times my chest tightens and I can’t breathe, and I pound on it because I can’t afford to rest. I have five children in school, because we adopted my sister-in-law’s child when she got sick. Three of the children are in Palawan, two are here, and we send half of what I save to my wife’s parents and the children. Their friends in school know their father is a beggar, and I told my son he should not be ashamed, because his father makes sure he can eat and go to school.

My eldest son will graduate from high school in April. My youngest will graduate from grade school on the same day. They want to go to college someday and I know no matter how long and hard I beg I can’t manage it. But I will try. I am still trying.

If I find the money for shoes my wife and I will go to the children’s graduation. It will be the proudest moment of our lives. Research by Aiah Fernandez