By Danton Remoto
(An excerpt from a novel)
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Typhoon Yoling traveled at a dizzying 200 miles per hour, in its wake a tail of fierce winds. Like the moon, it seemed to have raised water from the sea, for when it fell on land, it rained so hard it seemed the very skin of sky had been torn.
We had no classes for a week. That day, my fingers touched the windowpane. Cold, covered in mist. With my forefinger, I trace my initials. From my initials the world outside began to form.
Our duhat tree seemed to be getting a trashing. Its small round fruits and leaves whirled on their twigs, and the branches seemed to have gone mad. They convulsed violently, and then came a sound that made my skin crawl. A low, loud moan, then a gust of wind that blasted against our duhat tree. Our tree tried to hold its ground, to weather the dervish wind, but I heard something snap. I hurriedly brushed away the mist on the windowpane, and saw that the tree had been split cleanly in two, around three feet from the base. The tree—fruits, leaves, and all—lay on the wet ground. I remembered the hot summers when I climbed this tree, its dark and sweetish fruits rubbed with salt and popped swiftly into one’s mouth, and felt a pang run through me.
When my father turned the TV on, there were widespread appeals for relief goods and aid. The whole of Central Luzon—those five provinces that were the country’s rice bowl—was deep in floodwaters. An Air Force helicopter with media men inside took a pan of the area—water everywhere! When the choppers came closer, there were houses submerged in the flood, with only the roofs showing. And on top of those roofs, like the inverted arks of Noah, huddled shadows. No, blackbirds, flapping their wings. But as the helicopters came closer, the figures changed to people, clothes sticking to rain-drenched skin. Not waving, but drowning.
And the reports flew thick and fast.
Of a woman whose whole family was completely wiped out (“I tried to save my children, but their hands slipped from my grasp, and suddenly there was only dark water”). She was saved because she happened to be near the huge styrofoam box that contained the soft drinks they sold in their small variety store. When the floodwaters came, she grabbed the box, turned it upside down, and ran to the room where her children slept.
Of a town whose inhabitants were completely wiped out. Pabanlag (population: 5,000) was a town between the mountains and an estuary that drained off to the sea. The mountains had been dutifully denuded of trees, thanks to the mayor who had found an ally in the provincial military commander and the corpulent governor. There was gold in them thar hills, really, but not the one that could be beaten into the sheerest filigree, but hardwood shaped into tables and cabinets and chairs, especially now that there was a rage for “modern antique,” furniture newly carved but lacquered and painted to look like heirloom pieces.
So when the rains came, no trees stood to hold the water. The flood slipped down the mountains, like vomit. By that time, the river’s estuary had been swelling and swelling. It had been raining for a week and the river had overflowed its banks. The town was now under three feet of water.
When the water rushed down the mountain, it cascaded like a great waterfall. They said they heard the sound of a thousand hooves, louder and louder by the second, making the blood run cold. And then, complete darkness. The people were borne away by the water, holding on to coconut trees, doors, windows, anything.
When the darkness lifted, the whole town was gone.
Houses were wrenched away as if by the roots, and scattered miles and miles away. A broken window, a door, a wall. And everywhere, the dead. In the backyard of what was once his house, a man lay, his fingers in a half-curl, his eyes staring blindly at the sun. On the street lay a mother embracing tightly her baby. And swept out into sea, an old car with the whole family trapped inside. Around the car floated men and women with torn clothes and torn skin, their bodies bloated, floating in the luminous blue of the sea.
Oh, there were the usual recriminations against illegal logging. The President promised a thorough investigation that would spare nobody. The First Lady chaired Task Force Yoling, which gathered plastic bags of rice, sardine cans, salt, mung beans and soap into cotton bags with their design of faded flowers, recycled from B-Meg Poultry and Pig Feeds, and stamped outside, “GIFTS FROM THE FIRST LADY AND FAMILY,” the words blazing in her favorite color: fuchsia.
When the First Lady was auditioning for a role in the movie Sawa sa Lumang Simboryo (Python in the Old Belfry) for Kantutay Pictures in 1952, the producer, Mother Tiger Monteagudo (for her clothes were always in tawny stripes) was impressed by her screen test and still shots. Whereas the producer asked the First Lady her favorite color.
“Oh, it’s like a slumbook question,” she simpered.
The producer smiled quickly, then waited.
“Well, push-shi-ya,” she answered. Trying to impress the producer with her answer, the words coming nasally, as in the American movies she watched.
“So how do you spell it?” the producer asked, her left eyebrow rising like a question mark on her bleached face.
“Err, well,” one foot shifting, then the other, size eight feet sweating in cheap leatherette, “ay, my favorite color is red na lang.”
The First Lady did not get the role.
And so when the President came to power, one of the new First Lady’s first decisions was to buy Kantutay Pictures lock, stock, and barrel—and burn the negatives of all its movies.
The other was to hire an English teacher, a dropout from Oxford who would never split his infinitives ever, even if a thousand typhoons came tearing at his door.
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