There was quite a commotion when two youngsters scampered away from their drinking table at a small store. One ran like being chased by a ghost and the other stumbled covering his face with his hands. Other smiling teenagers remained seated at their table slowly sipping red local wine. “What’s happening?” I asked one young drinker I recognized. “They are scared…Steve wanted to kiss them..", replied the guy laughing and pointed to Steve standing at the corner of the store holding a glass of wine offered to him by the drinkers.
Years before 1950s, the Philippines did not have adequate primary health services and private medical practitioners were few in places other than in big cities. Many communities suffered outbreaks of ailments which could have been prevented by vaccination. The dreaded smallpox struck Steve’s town of Danao afflicting many residents, Steve among them. He was in his teens when smallpox disfigured his face with pockmarks.
Steve’s real name was Esteban. Younger residents of the town addressed him as Steve while the older ones used his full name. Steve lived his teen years and many years of adulthood suffering from humiliation with his pockmarked face and a moniker in the vernacular which English equivalent is “Pockmarked Steve”. Peered closely, Steve’s face was like being punctured with craters similar to the moon’s surface. When in a group of friends and colleagues, Steve often became the butt of jokes and invented funny tales. There were remarks that Steve had a face that even a mother could not love and that his funny face could launch a thousand laughs. Steve’s distressing predicament made it difficult for him to seek and land any job, let alone find a mate. Notwithstanding, he lived a decent and colorful life. Behind his pockmarked face, he maintained a steely resolve to find himself a respectable slot in the social structure of the community.
Steve managed to get by decently by doing sundry jobs that had few takers, by doing voluntary services and by honestly adhering to his Christian faith. He dug latrines and graves and sold candles and coffins. Some voluntary tasks and services he rendered endeared him to many residents of the town. He was almost always one of the first to offer condolences and assistance to a bereaved family and was usually around during prayers and wakes for the departed. On stage presentations during social gatherings, he always volunteered and participated as a jester, capitalizing on his terribly pockmarked face. Steve’s religiosity was also very well known in the community and was even noted by the town’s catholic priest, Father Alcoseba. He seldom missed the Sunday mass and joining any religious procession around the town.
Undaunted by the playful taunts and jokes on his pockmarks, Steve learned a hilarious way to get back at his main tormentors, some of the town’s machos.
Danao's menfolk embraced an unspoken and unwritten code of conduct not to harm the old, the women, and men of inferior strength. A man who fights with a woman, an old person or one much younger than him was looked down upon for having feminine attributes. To the machos, Steve was just another harmless funny chap, game for mild taunting and jesting for laughs. Certain that he will not be harmed, Steve pondered long on how to dish it out with his persecutors.
It was on one occasion that Steve discovered a way. He came by a group of toughies drinking and sharing jokes with men and women friends. One started to jokingly comment on his pockmarked face drawing grins from his friends. Steve slowly approached the guy, swiftly gripped his shoulders and planted and rubbed his pockmarked face against the guy’s. The ladies giggled and the men roared with laughter as the guy struggled to get away from Steve’s grip. Steve repeated the prank at any opportunity. And men became cautious whenever he is around. Since then he received fewer and fewer taunts and jokes.
I and my friends met and talked with Steve few times and found him a very friendly and dignified person. He addressed us in the vernacular of ‘Lads’, in Danao, an expression of esteem for younger ones. He always inquired how far we were from finishing our studies.
Few years after graduation, I moved to work in Manila, which at that time is like moving from the Philippines to another country. When Grandmother Crispina, passed on, I came back to Danao for her funeral and encountered Steve again during Grandmother’s wake. “How are you Lad? How’s life?”, he inquired. I smiled and mumbled some greetings to him. When grandmother was interred, I saw Steve help lift and lower her coffin to the concrete tomb.
I went back home again to Danao when Aunt Margarita passed away. This time I noticed a small house near the cemetery with kids running around the yard and candles and flowers sold at the base of the house. Then I saw Steve came out. He shook my hands, muttered “How are you Lad”, offered condolences and went with me into my Aunt’s burial tomb. Unlike before, the cemetery was now very well kempt and trees overlook the tombs. I learned later that Father Alcoseba had earlier employed Steve to tend the catholic cemetery and that he found a loving a mate, built a small house on a lot fronting the cemetery and had children. Steve ultimately found his calling and succeeded in altering his humiliating moniker.
I left Danao confident that the serenity of my ancestors’ resting place was watched over by ‘Steve, the Cemetery Keeper’.