Whenever Diego went with his family to church, he always noticed the saints.
They were made of plaster and painted with colors that had once been shiny, bright and lovely, but over the years the paint had faded to soft sky blues and creamy browns and rose pinks. They stood atop heavy, wooden platforms that had been carved to look like clouds. From their places near the walls, they watched over the people kneeling at the pews and bowing their heads in prayer, or moving slowly through the church while praying the Stations of the Cross. Church-goers often laid bouquets of roses and the more humble gumamela and santan at their feet and hung chains of sampaguita and ilang-ilang around their necks and hands.
There were six of them standing in rows on either side the pews:
St. Catherine, the only girl-saint, peered up at the sky as if watching for rain. She wore a thin crown of thorns over her dark veil, and her hands were clasped pleadingly in front of her. The backs of both her hands were marked by a single dark spot. Diego’s mother told him once that the spots were called stigmata, the marks of the wounds of Christ. She said some of the saints were given the stigmata as a mark of their devotion to God.
St. Francis wore nothing but brown—brown sandals, plain brown robe and a short, brown beard to match—and greeted churchgoers with a solemn face. He also had the stigmata on his hands. Diego wondered if the spots were contagious to the rest of the saints. Maybe that was why St. Catherine and St. Francis were the ones who stood closest to the doors of the church.
St. Paul carried a sword in his right hand and a book in his left. Diego could never be sure if he was frowning at something he read, or he was frowning because somebody had interrupted his reading. If that was the case, Diego had an idea what he used the sword for.
St. Peter clutched a set of keys in his right hand and scowled at St. Paul through his thick, curly beard. His platform was carved with the waves of the sea, complete with foamy curls and pointy tips, instead of clouds.
St. Gabriel the Archangel was dressed in pale blue robes that went well with the bluish-white of his wings. He carried a scroll in his hand. His mouth hung slightly open, his cheeks glowed pink and his eyes glistened. He looked as if he were about to cry.
St. Michael the other Archangel was dressed in armor like the one Magellan was wearing in a painting Diego once saw. He waved a sword in the air, both wings arched high on his back, and glared down at the steps near the altar. He looked as angry as St. Gabriel looked earnest.
Diego spent most of his time during Mass looking at the saints. He liked it best when he and his family sat in the pews at the back of the church, because that way he got to look at more of the saints without having to turn his head. He had always been fascinated with them, even when he was little. He had heard of stories about statues of the Blessed Virgin and the saints in other churches that had somehow moved in the night. Some had even gotten their feet wet or their robes dotted with amorseco nettles. He could easily imagine his own saints moving and speaking when there was no one around, and he wondered what they talked about.
Then one day, he realized something odd about the saints. He tugged at his mother’s arm to ask her about it. “Inay, how come none of the saints are smiling? How come they never look happy?”
Inay pretended not to hear him. She did that whenever she didn’t want to be distracted from her thoughts, or when she didn’t want to answer his question. So he tried again in a louder voice. “Inay, why are the saints so sad all the time?”
The people in the front pew turned to look at him. Inay’s face flushed dark red, and she glared down at Diego. “Because little boys like you never pay attention during Mass. Now hush!” she said in a voice that would have made St. Michael proud.
In school, he went to Father Tomas, the headmaster and parish priest, to ask the same thing. “Because they are contemplating the wondrous glory of God,” Father Tomas replied, his eyes shining like St. Gabriel’s.
Father Tomas’ answer didn’t help either. If the saints were thinking about the glory of God, Diego was inclined to believe, then they ought to be smiling all the time. God is all-good, and nobody frowns or cries or gets angry at a good thing, least of all God. So he went to Ka Tasio, who had been a university professor before he turned into a Communist revolutionary and fought the military in the mountainsides many years before Diego was born. “Because they were made by the evil Spanish friars, who oppressed the common masses,” Ka Tasio spat, looking as sour as St. Peter. Confused, Diego thanked him and left.
He didn’t stop puzzling over the question of why the saints were so unhappy, though. A few years later, when he was old enough, Itay presented him with his very own whittling knife. A customer had given Itay the knife as part of the payment for a bookshelf Itay had made for him. Itay in turn gave the knife to Diego and taught him how to carve shapes and figures out of blocks of wood. Diego practiced long and carefully, and soon his little wooden figures grew better and better.
Then after one Sunday Mass, Diego had an brilliant idea. He would carve little wooden figures of the saints! But this time, they wouldn’t be frowning. They would be laughing!
He went to work at once, starting with St. Francis. In Diego’s hands, St. Francis flung his arms out and gazed up in happy wonder at a flock of birds soaring through the sky. St. Catherine smiled down at a rose she held in her clasped hands, breathing in its sweet scent. St. Paul somehow lost his sword, and instead he held up his book for people to see, pointing gleefully at a page where he read something funny. St. Peter laughed through his thick, curling beard as he twirled his keys around his finger. St. Gabriel stopped looking teary-eyed and was marching in place, holding his scroll out like a baton. St. Michael lay on the grass with his arms underneath his head and his wings folded underneath him, chewing a blade of grass contentedly. His sword lay on the ground beside him, unused.
When Diego was finished, he looked over his creations and nearly burst with pride. His saints looked so much happier now! Excited to show off his work, he lined up his saints in a row and called Inay to come see what he made.
When Inay saw what he made, however, she didn’t look happy at all. In fact, she looked absolutely furious. “Santa Maria, what have you done?” she wailed. She snatched up little St. Paul and St. Peter and eyed them with horror. “This is blasphemy! You will have to go straight to confession for this sacrilege, young man,” she said sternly. “And take these—these things with you. I’m sure Father Tomas will want you to get rid of them.” She tossed the little saints onto the table and stomped away.
Stunned and dismayed, Diego gathered up his little saints and plodded toward the church. On the way he met Ka Tasio, who wanted to see what he had in his arms. “What a joke!” Ka Tasio crowed as he plucked up St. Michael and St. Francis and turned them around and around. “These dolls are crazy! What great caricatures of those objects of oppression! Hah! How those Spanish friars would have hated them. Look at this! It looks just like that rotten old padre I know. What a joke!” He held up the figure of St. Peter and howled with laughter.
Diego snatched back his saints. “They’re not a joke!” he said fiercely, but Ka Tasio couldn’t hear him for laughing.
“Here, here, what’s all the to-do?” Looming like a mountain in a billowing white sutana, Father Tomas came marching up and glowered at them suspiciously.
Before Diego could stop him, Ka Tasio snatched St. Peter right out of Diego’s arms and thrust him right under the priest’s nose. “Here, Padre. Looks just like someone we know, eh?” he asked slyly, elbowing the priest in the ribs.
Father Tomas turned as red as a tomato as he beheld the little saint. “Diego, what is the meaning of this?” he demanded.
“Nothing! I just—I wanted to—” Diego stammered.
“Clever Diego here made them,” Ka Tasio said when Diego choked up with frustration. “I like the idea. Hah! Good propaganda, these! You clerics couldn’t have been able to bully people so much if they’d seen your saints look so stupid and undignified, eh? Eh?” He cackled rudely and slapped his knee. His hilarity only made the priest even madder.
“You shut up, you old heathen,” Father Tomas snapped at Ka Tasio, then rounded on Diego, who was now fervently wishing that he was somewhere, anywhere else other than here. “And you, you blasphemous scoundrel!” he thundered. “I want you to get rid of them. Now! I don’t want to see those ridiculous toys ever again, do you hear?”
“Yes, Padre,” said Diego.
“And I want to see you at the confessional first thing in the morning, do you hear?”
“Yes, Padre,” said Diego in an even smaller voice.
“Good! Of all the disrespectful, preposterous…” Still muttering, the priest whirled around in a cloud of white cloth and stormed away.
Ka Tasio made a face at the disappearing priest. “Can’t take a joke, that old fatty. Don’t you worry, boy,” he said to the stiff-shouldered Diego, giving him a conspiratorial wink. “You can always give those things to me. I know exactly what to do with them.”
Diego glared at him. “They’re not for giving away!”
“Fine,” Ka Tasio sniffed. “Sell them to me then, although I’m telling you now I won’t pay more than a peso for each—”
“They’re not for sale either!” Diego yelled, then he turned and ran away, leaving the old revolutionary staring at him in surprise.
He soon grew too tired to run, and leaned against the wall of a panaderia to catch his breath. What should he do now, he asked himself, looking down at his poor, maligned saints. Should he sell them? Should he give them away? Throw them into the garbage heap? Or bury them in the backyard and pretend that nothing happened? Unable to answer him, his little saints smiled up at him instead, trying to comfort him.
Diego drifted through the streets, clutching his little saints in his arms. He soon found himself walking along the bridge, with the roaring of jeepneys and the occasional clop-clop of a horse-drawn karitela mingling with his dismal thoughts. He stopped in the middle of the bridge, leaned over the railing and gazed down at the dark, flowing river below him. He lined his saints up in a row on top of the railing, but when he tried to push them off, his arms became too heavy to lift.
Diego turned. Itay stood there with his box of carpentry tools in one hand. The jeepney that had just deposited his father on the curb drove away with a mechanical growl and a cloud of fumes. “Itay?” Diego stammered in surprise.
“What are you doing here? Did Inay send you on an errand?”
Diego shook his head. When his father continued to wait for his explanation, Diego had no choice but to tell him the story of the laughing saints.
Itay set his tools down and picked up each saint, turning them round and round and examining each one carefully. Diego held his breath, dreading what his father would say.
Finally, Itay spoke. “These are very good.”
Diego’s jaw dropped. “But people keep telling me to get rid of them! Or they just make fun of them and call them stupid!” he cried. “Even Inay said they were bad. I even have to go to confession for this!”
Itay stared at St. Catherine, who shyly offered him her rose. “Bad? I don’t know about that. But you must not disobey your mother, Diego.” Diego’s face fell. “I know it’s hard for you, anak,” Itay said kindly. “Why don’t you give them to me instead? You head on home and I’ll take care of these saints for you.”
With a heavy heart, Diego gave his saints to Itay and made his way back home. Not another word was spoken about the little saints, and Diego never saw them again.
Years passed, and Diego grew older. With each year, he learned more and more about the world, and much of it turned out to have nothing to do with little saints carved out of wood. He soon put away his whittling knife and fanciful ideas about talking, laughing saints. In their place he took up his school books and lessons, and dreamed dreams that were right and proper. There was no more time to be carving little wooden saints anymore, and he soon forgot all about them.
And it so happened that one day, while he was sitting at his desk with his head in his hands, his daughter Lucia came up to him and shoved a picture book in his lap. “Look at this, Tatay,” she said. “I don’t like the way they’re drawn. They’re always so sad and angry-looking.” She pointed at the pictures in the book as she spoke, showing him.
Diego looked down. It was a picture book showing the lives of saints. “Why are the saints always so sad, Tatay?” Lucia wanted to know.
“I don’t know, anak,” he said absently. “I’m busy right now. Why don’t you go outside and play?”
Lucia took her book back. “I don’t want to go outside. Why can’t I stay here with you?” she asked, pouting.
“I said I’m busy, Lucia,” Diego said again in a louder voice. “If you don’t want to go outside, then go find something else to do!”
With that, Lucia huffed and ran away.
Very soon, however, she came back. “Lucia, didn’t I tell you not to bother me anymore?” Diego demanded, frowning at her.
She held up a small, wooden chest that had been sealed tight. “Can you open this for me first, Tatay?”
With an exasperated sigh, Diego threw his pen down and took the chest. It looked very old and worn-out, but it wasn’t very heavy at all. He had never seen this chest before in his life. “Where did you get this?” he asked her.
“In the basement. I found it in that box where Nanay kept Lolo’s old things.”
Diego stared at his daughter then down at the chest in wonder. Then he smiled a little. “Yes, this looks like something your Lolo would have made,” he murmured.
“Lolo was a carpenter, wasn’t he, Tatay?” Lucia piped up, glad now that her father was talking to her instead of sending her away.
“Yes, he was.”
“Was he a good one?”
Diego smiled again, remembering. “Yes. Not just a carpenter. Your Lolo was also a very good man.”
“Is that Lolo’s treasure chest, Tatay?” Lucia poked a finger at the wooden chest. “It looks like something you put treasure in. What’s in there, anyway?”
“I don’t know,” Diego answered, feeling something inside him stir. Something old and half-forgotten. “Let’s find out, shall we?”
He took a pen-knife and pried the box open. There, nestled safely in an old piece of flannel, were six little wooden saints, musty and brown with age, but still almost as good as when he had first made them. They lay with their faces upturned toward him, all of them smiling at him in joyful welcome.
Itay had kept them after all.
Diego blinked, then he smiled. His smile became a grin, and then his grin became a long, merry laugh. He laughed and laughed until his chest hurt and tears squeezed out from the corners of his eyes. Lucia stared at him then started laughing as well, even though she didn’t understand the reason for her father’s mirth. Still laughing, Diego drew her to him and hugged her tight.
“Here, Lucia,” he said, the chest of little happy saints pressed between them. “I found some happy saints for you.”