Araw ng Kalayaan 1991, the banner read. It’s a holiday but who’d pick it? There’s no joy in the mob’s foot-drag shuffle. There’s no brassy national anthem. Only the heckle of a thousand waylaid travellers, only glassy customer service smiles, apology and regret over the P.A. Delayed, delayed, cancelled. Arturo told his wife he’d go outside and see if he could learn more about what was happening. ‘Take Jun with you,’ Gina had said flatly – of course she didn’t buy it – but he took his son by the hand all the same. The boy was being a menace again, had inherited his father’s disquiet along with his name. Give him one unsupervised second and he’d launch himself right off into the scrum of legs and sandaled feet.
‘Don’t let go, ‘nak,’ Arturo said as they pried their way through the throng. Queues shoved up against the service counters like a river delta reaching the coast. Around the concourse, passengers awaited news. They lay on the benches or on the carpet resting their heads on suitcases and clothes. Jun pulled his father closer to the windows facing the tarmac where the planes stood waiting. He liked watching them inch forward – all chrome and combustion coming to life at once, carbonating the air with pre-ignition fuel – only to be stopped just as suddenly by some off-screen order, a bark from the radio or the flourish of an air marshal’s wand.
They left the airport and emerged on Aquino Avenue where street vendors had already gathered and set up roadside shops. Children – some as young as Jun – made brisk trade as they weaved between stalls. Unruly knockabouts with salesman flair, calling out Quail eggs! duck eggs! bananas, go on, ser! peanuts, ser! while local cops watched on with apprehension. Arturo bought the boy a skewer of pollock fish-balls and then he walked over to where the policemen were standing.
‘He waved an amicable hand. ‘Can you tell me what’s going on here? When will they let us fly?’
The men seemed listless. They lacked the rigidity of military and were clearly exiled here by some overbearing supervisor. Here, instead of an air-conditioned card-hall or Pasay brothel, waiting out the end of the world.
‘Where are you headed, pare?’ the younger officer asked. His face shone in the lateday heat.
‘Sydney,’ Arturo said. He had relatives there who’d schemed for years to get them over. They needed diligent workers, one cousin had promised Turo and his wife. They needed men with brains. He prophesied food on the table each night, an unfenced triple-front house, and two kids in medical school. That was enough for Gina but Arturo had never been convinced despite each pre-filled pastel form, each interview, each cheque made out to the immigration lawyer with the tease of hair and ruddled neck. Ah, but he must’ve had such a slackwit look on his face because the police officers’ exasperation suddenly gave way to pity. ‘No, pare,’ said the older cop, clapping a sympathetic paw on his shoulder. ‘Where do you live? Where’s home? No one’s leaving Manila today.’ They had automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. Old Yank M16s, possibly seized from the communists, the ordnance you’d expect from a former dictatorship.
On the other side of the street, a homeless man was shouting something. He held a sign that said REV 8:8. The cops watched for a while, expecting a disturbance, but the man wasn’t harassing anybody in particular and most passersby avoided him. They barely stole a glance. Doom-struck madmen would be a common enough sight in the city by the end of that summer.
The older policeman turned back to Arturo. ‘This is just the first blast, sir. A throat clearing. Things will only get worse. Get your family home and stay there.’
Arturo watched the policemen trudge off, the arrowheads of perspiration on the backs of their uniforms. He stretched his arms up over his head and heard knots of muscle pop. He looked down at Jun. ‘Now what?’
The crowd had grown much larger in the short time they’d been outside. People are leaving the airport and just sort of standing still, reaching the exit and staring up at the northern sky, uncertain about where they were meant to go from here. There were harried-looking businessmen and young people who should have been on holiday. A vivid heap of luggage rested at their feet. There was a pilot pinching the front of his shirt. A Latin American priest flanked by two nuns in the black habit of the Benedictines. They sat on a wooden bench and prayed the rosary.
Turo crouched down on one knee so he was eye-level with his son. He pointed up at the clouds of ash that advanced like a tired army. ‘What do you think of that?’
‘Apuy yun po,’ said the boy. It’s a fire.
Arturo nodded. ‘It’s a fire. Right in the middle of the mountain. An enormous fire that started long ago,’ he went on, as if he were beginning a story. But before he could tell it, Junior had already fashioned his own. A treasure hoard in a deep magma chamber. A scarlet beast with ancient wings outstretched. Fire giants tucking into an Englishman focaccia. Explorers with pith helmets and jodhpurs and little Oriental sidekicks mapping out subterranean labyrinths. It was Arturo’s quiet pleasure to watch Jun when he got like this – the drifty look he got, mouth agape, the mop of black hair over his eyes – and he envied the way the boy, like all children, could relocate himself so easily into a world all his own.
‘Let’s find your mother,’ Arturo said.
The priest and the nuns were reciting the Hail Mary. Arturo was not a religious man. He hadn’t been to church in years. He knew that truth lay in numbers and in an understanding of the world’s physical laws. A mountain was an accommodation of stress and pressure. A volcano would telegraph its eruption for weeks and weeks if you knew what to listen for. An earthquake in Tangshan could set another off on the far end of the Eurasian plate. He knew that the land they stood on was temporary, that its coastlines changed shape and its atolls sank into the Pacific and sometimes rose. But looking at the Zambales mountains today, even he found it hard to deny what his countrymen already knew.
A Plinian column, twenty kilometres high. The sun a red palm. A cloud of disintegrated pumice and silicon covering the stratosphere like living tissue. It had a terrible life to it, he thought. There was will here and there was portent. How easy it was, today, to believe in a God that punished and judged. And how much it looked like two lobes perched on a spindly stem: a great brain looming over the Philippine islands, solemn and indifferent.
At Amoranto Velodrome, the tennis courts have been converted to field kitchens. A documentary crew are trying to enter the makeshift morgue. Air Force personnel stand about like construction workers waiting for their foreman to show up. Even from the grandstands, it’s hard to see how far the queues go. You will get to know this wide-eyed march of the survivors. It’s the next century’s whole story. The whole place blanketed in the drab olive of army tarp. Pope John Paul II’s condolences on the Jumbotron. He prays for the missing. Santo Antonio, Finder of Lost Things, please bring them home. Typhoon Yunya’s days from landfall, says a meteorologist, squinting through thick eyeglass lenses. Army geologists watch their monitors with hushed expectancy. A one hertz tremor, rail to rail. A fisherman, bird-boned, sun-pruned, tells the interviewer that he leapt from his canoe and dove underwater and hid there when he first heard the rumble. He swam to shore but his partner was gone. There’s a father who lost his son in a mudslide. A girl who hid in a cave. Their words have a detached and offhand quality, as if they’re reporting things from movies they’d seen – movies that they weren’t particularly liked or found interesting – and could only faintly recollect.
Gina turned away from the television screen and saw that the girl in the Philippine Airlines uniform had slid a document across the counter.
‘Did you see that?’ she asked.
‘Ma’am, I’ve upgraded your seats and we’ll contact you as soon as we have a handle on the situation.’
‘They’re talking about a typhoon now. How long do you think it’ll be before the airport’s open again?’
‘I’m afraid I can’t say.’
‘Days? Weeks, do you think?’
‘I understand your concern, ma’am,’ the girl replied. ‘But even if I could help you, I won’t be able to process any of this while we’re on alert. It’s the system, ma’am.’
‘None of our planes have clearance.’
Gina studied the skin on the girl’s arms. She had an aggressive eczema there, a violent red that ran up and florentined the left side of her neck. ‘Miss,’ still vainly defiant, ‘We need to be in Sydney by the end of the week. My husband has an interview for work. If we were up in the air three hours ago, we wouldn’t have had to worry about the ash reaching us.’
On TV, a man in a barong stood on a white podium to recite the Declaración de Independencia.
‘Can I talk to my husband?’ she asked. ‘There he is now. Turo!’ His head bobbing in the pedestrian roil, Jun dawdling behind. The girl shrugged, raised her hands like she was about to catch something. ‘Over here,’ Gina called again as he shouldered towards her.
‘What did you find out?’ she asked him. Jun leaned on a suitcase and sent it reeling across the floor. She swept her foot in a peg-leg motion to wedge it still.
‘I talked to some cops.’
‘Cops,’ she repeated. The PAL lady was already talking to another customer.
‘Don’t be angry,’ he said. He spoke softly, diffidently. That’s how he got. She was inclined to pointed silence.
‘I’m not angry. What did they tell you?’ When he took her by the wrist, she already knew what he’d say.
‘They said the sooner we leave, the better. We’ll work this out at home, Gina.’
She let her hand go limp and he took up the slack. She tried. God knows she did. Today, on the cusp of escape, the earth itself – like some bland-faced arbitrator – arrived to arbitrate and it took her husband’s side.
She was young when she first saw the world outside the archipelago. It was 1981 and martial law had been lifted, at least on paper, and she was a twenty-one-year old girl who’d coaxed a doting husband into a European honeymoon. They went by steam train, scrimping and starving through Germany and Italy and the alps. Always by the cheapest means possible – four-man sleeper carriages and cup noodle dinners and run-down hotels – but she loved it all the same. Odyssey sang in her blood. She craved it. The girl who crossed the sea saw quilted fields and tall dark pines, peaks wreathed in cloud, roe deer in the wan light of late autumn. She promised herself she would never return to the Philippines. In a way, she didn’t.
They took a cab down the highway. Cement trucks crept like great insects with churning abdomens. Jeepneys painted with race-car flames, arrogant reds, stained-glass blues, the aerosol softies and Wildstyle of tenement brick. The air shimmered with fuel fumes. Jun pressed his face up to the window so his breath dappled the glass.
‘Listen to the word of God,’ came the voice from the radio. It was Imelda, coming in live from Oahu, where the Marcos family had been living in exile since Ferdinand was ousted in ‘86.
‘These events – earthquakes, volcanoes, typhoons – these are not natural events. These are punishments sent by God. He is telling you that my husband must be allowed to return home.’
Marcos had died two years earlier and his body had been kept in Hawaii, propped up on ice with enough rouge on to keep him looking hale. Imelda had been petitioning the government for months to let them come home so she could bury him beside his mother and father in Ilocos Norte.
‘You are punishing the dead,’ she crowed, that familiar whicker. ‘This is God’s punishment. Listen to the word of God.’
Gina’s sister was waiting for them when they returned.‘You’re back,’ she said, picking her nephew up. She gave him a hard kiss on each cheek as he squirmed to free himself. ‘Jun, you won’t ever leave me again, will you?’ She smiled at Gina and Turo.
‘We’re still going, Ate. We’ve just been delayed.’
Her sister looked at her in a strange and tender way, the way you might look a child who’s still too young to understand the deeper meaning behind things. ‘Maybe this is a blessing, Gina. Maybe you’re meant to stay.’
‘We’ll be on the next plane out once this is over.’
Gina was dying for a shower, to wash off the day’s sourness. In the bathroom, she began to fill a pail with water and the steam made the room smell of camphor. A tentative knock and Turo sidled in. He came up to her and held her by the waist. He pressed his cheek on the skin just beneath her neck.
‘I need to know you’re with me, Turo.’
‘I am with you.’
‘You should call your cousin,’ she said. ‘Tell him we’ve been held up. Call the company and ask them if you can postpone your interview.’
‘It’ll be fine.’
‘That’s all you have to say?’ Now she shook herself free of him. ‘It’s not fine, Arturo. Everything’s going to go to hell. Call them. Let them know we’re still coming.’
He nodded but said nothing. Then he left. Gina heard the scritch of housekeys, the rattle of the fly-screen grate. She looked at herself in the mirror and pushed one hand up under her hair, which was going flaxy in parts, perhaps a little grey. She lifted the thick mane of it and inspected the skin around her neck and cheeks, the creases and compressions in the unflattering halogen. The pail was overflowing. Steam began to fill the cramped room. It fogged up the mirror’s glass until the walls behind her were obscured, and she could no longer see her body, and then she could no longer see her face.
The old man at the sari-sari store sold flowers, cigarettes and playing cards. Arturo wished him a happy Independence Day. He bought a pack of Jackpots, lit one and let it hang out the corner of his mouth, limp, the way he did when he was younger. (He thought it made him look like a French philosopher or the leading man in a Lino Brocka movie – contemplative, dashing, in spite of the broad nose and farmhand’s complexion – and also because his dormmates had told him that it drove a girl named Regina up a wall with ardour.) He shut one eye for the smoke.
‘You hear about Clark, boss?’ the shopkeeper asked and paused like he was about to tell a joke.
‘The military base? They evacuated it.’
‘Ten thousand people. No one left behind.’
Jeep by jeep, down the dirt track the soldiers went with another Asian war story safely tucked into their tins of chew. Another one to zing out over a snifter of bourbon and a crackling fire. (But never retold as often as the others: how could a story about a volcano ever be as moving as the sacrifices their brothers made at Kumsong? as amusing as the one about the three whores in Phnom Penh? or as thrilling as the Huey ride out of fallen Saigon?) They wouldn’t be back.
Arturo wandered over to the edge of the road as the familiar headspin kicked in. He sat down in the gutter. The truth is, he now felt relieved. It was perverse, selfish, but it was like he’d been plucked out of deep water and stood on dry land. He butted the cigarette and rose, patting dust off the seat of his jeans. He walked back to the store. The old man had his ear up to a transistor radio. ‘Manang,’ Arturo said. ‘Get me one of those international calling cards, too.’
On the way home, he caught Jun shuffling down the street. ‘There you are,’ he said, waiting at the front gate. An insurgent grin on the boy’s face. ‘Ano ba. You’re a mess.’ They climbed the stairs to the front of the house where Jun let his shoes flop by the doormat. Dried mud scattered all over the landing. Arturo could only click his tongue, too tired to rebuke.
‘Go on,’ he said. He touched the boy’s arm, guided him inside. ‘Clean yourself up before you mother sees you.’
Gina came out of the kitchen with a balled-up cloth in her hand that she held pot lids with. Her hair was damp and she’d wrapped it up high in a towel. She wore a robe and her house slippers. He went to her and kissed her on the cheek which smelled like soap and the smell mixed with the tobacco stink in his clothes. He could see the soft light of the television in the living room, where his sister-in-law would be watching a televangelist or talent show. He put his hands around Gina’s shoulders and felt her soften. There was a part of him – a childish part he’d stashed away long ago – that made him shut his eyes, squeeze them tight, and will it all still. To hitch the passage of time to those memories; to this exact instant where he held her body as close as he could to his own. And another part of him knew better.