From Manila, San Crisostomo is an hour’s flight into hurricane country. The island is one of a tiny cluster that’s practically invisible to the naked eye from the plane. Perpetually shrouded by mist and rain, it’s caught in the cross hairs of the typhoons that pummel through the South China Sea during the monsoon season, ferocious typhoons ripping ancient trees from their roots and sending them flying across the water. Cabins are hunched and burrowed in trenches, their thatch roofs held down with nets of thick hemp rope tied to stakes in the ground. Their walls are three feet thick, carved from massive limestone rocks that have turned, with age, to the color of bones.
So remote is this part of the country that anything halfway plausible is taken as fact – unconfirmed stories that have been retold so often they acquire the polish of truth, like the rosary beads people here carry in their pockets and pull out whenever the need for reassurance arises, the fragrant wood rubbed smooth by constant use.
Rumor has it that one of the islands, Sampetro, is populated by descendants of Portuguese mariners shipwrecked in the 1600s. Because of the inhospitable weather, they have been largely secluded all these centuries. They look more Eurasian than Filipino, with all the genetic quirkiness that comes from inbreeding. People here say they are descended from angels – beautiful but out of this world.
Janya’s fascinated by it – by the juxtaposition of Western folk tale and local hearsay. She’s done all the research, of course. In San Crisostomo, people say the surface of the northern Pacific Ocean circulates clockwise in a vortex every seven years. This, surprisingly, has been proven to be a scientific fact: oceanographers have shown that this gyre – the same phenomenon that causes the doldrums – is caused by the spinning of the earth. The natives believe that the ocean is a living creature with a logic of its own, and, in an uncanny echo of the eternal return (uncanny because it is unintended), they say that what was lost at sea is bound to return every seven years. One must be ready for such encounters.
The flight from Manila feels like we’re barreling through a wind tunnel. The turboprop is packed with natives loaded with crates of groceries from the mainland, not to mention piglets squealing and chickens squawking in the back, like Noah’s Ark. Janya grips my arm and digs her nails in every time the plane swoops into an air pocket.
By the time we land in San Crisostomo – the plane skidding down a short runway, barely missing the edge that would have plunged us into a deep volcanic trench – Janya and I are sick as hell, barely able to lug our bags to our rented house by the shore. We try to sleep through the rest of the day, holding each other up as we take turns vomiting in the tiny untiled bathroom.
The next morning, I wake up early to discover brilliant, limpid sunlight all around. The house we’ve rented is modest, the facade painted sky blue. Its ancient wooden door, rotted by wind and rain, is desiccated so that the wood looks like a giant strip of brittle bark, an old chain looped in two holes where the handles used to be. An iron cross hangs from a pair of rusty nails on the door, the nails pierced right where they should be, through the hands of an embossed Christ. The rust on it looks like dried blood. Three starfish, bleached and dried, adorn the top of the doorway.
The house is a two-room affair: a mahogany table, no doubt imported from the mainland, since even mahogany is no match for the natural forces that lacerate the island; two benches, in disrepair, made of fragile local wood; a bamboo sofa with old, lumpy cushions covered in frayed Thai silk; a rattan shelf with several shells, stones and flat dried seaweed like the veined remains of leaves, found objects that someone else must have lovingly collected, and for whom they held some private, personal importance.
From the front door, I can see the South China Sea down below, where giant waves crash against submarine, volcanic rock, forcing geysers to spew above the surface, three stories high. Behind the house, streams seep out of the volcano’s slopes. Waterfalls pour from unexplored summits.
It’s close to Holy Week, the Lenten season when the rains begrudge an uneasy reprieve. What was a stifling, colorless bubble of rain has opened to an omnipresent blue. This respite is as welcome as it is short-lived, starting in April and lasting for just seven weeks, until shortly after Easter.
I can hear Janya throwing up in the bathroom.
‘Come out, Janya,’ I call to her. ‘It’s the weirdest, most beautiful place on earth.’
By midday Janya’s still ill, and we walk to the town center to seek out a doctor. The locals tell us to look for a guy named Gino, who happens to be the next best thing: he’s the island’s herbalist. At his house, a lady meets us to say that Gino will take a few more minutes – he’s in the back loading his station wagon to go out to sea.
‘He’s a fisherman too?’ I ask the lady.
‘Every man on this island is,’ she replies.
‘What the heck does herbalist mean?’ I whisper to Janya. ‘Is he even licensed to do this sort of thing?’
‘Don’t worry, it’s probably all homeopathic,’ she assures me. ‘Go take a walk. I won’t be long.’
‘Don’t let him do anything. Don’t let him cut you up or stick a needle in you.’
‘Oh, for heaven’s sake. Go get something to eat.’
‘No sharp or pointed instruments.’
‘All right already. Go.’
I kill time around the small plaza. A recent earthquake has left a jagged crenellation along the remaining walls of the squat stone church. It looks as if a giant shark has taken a bite out of it. The church is a hunkered, disproportionate version of medieval European cathedrals, the kind you see in small towns in Umbria. Its walls must be at least five feet thick, a crumbling relic of the Spanish colonial government’s effort to defy the elements. Just outside it, women are decking the statue of the Mater Dolorosa with white orchids. The grieving Madonna is perched on a dais, draped in a cloak of black velvet embroidered with gold thread, her lacquer heart pierced by a dozen silver daggers.
The women recognize me, the guy who got really sick on the plane. An unfamiliar face is easily remembered in such a small town. I decide to take advantage of this to tell them the reason Janya and I have come. I ask them if anyone remembers an accident that happened long ago, a two-year-old French boy who got lost at sea and was never found.
The older among them, their faces shrouded in black lace veils, nod and say something to a younger one, who translates in English for me.
‘That was the time of the big typhoons,’ she says. ‘They came with the boy, and left without him.’
‘Is that it?’
The young woman asks the older ones and says, ‘That’s all they remember. Many others have been lost at sea.’
I should have known that’s all I was going to get. It’s a wonder anyone even remembers it at all. Maybe they were talking about a completely different boy, a completely different accident. I wonder what the accident rate here must be. I’d be lucky if I found any records, any statistics.
So there it is. No rituals of grieving followed the accident, no remembering, and therefore no pain. Death, after all, is a phenomenon experienced by the living. I wonder if this had made it easier for Sylvain and Annette. Unimpeded by their emotions, the passage from life to death, from memory to forgetting, must have happened more quickly.
I go back to fetch Janya, but the lady at the house tells me she’s been brought to the clinic. She gives me very vague directions on how to find it, saying merely that ‘it’s right there.’
Following the general direction of her pointed finger, I walk through an alley whose windows overflow with orchids. I’m lost in this profusion of carmine and white, colors incongruous in a landscape so desolate and gray, so that I hardly notice someone dashing out of one of the houses in a confused panic, stopping momentarily, looking absently toward the sea.
It’s Janya. She hurries away in the opposite direction, her hand held against her mouth, the terror in her face so unmistakable that even I, at this distance, can feel it. She doesn’t see me but keeps walking quickly toward the sea.
A few moments later I see a man coming out. He seems to be running after her, but stops at the door, watching her move away. He goes back in and minutes later comes out again, his arms now loaded with spears, tackle and nets, which he dumps in the back of a station wagon.
He turns the vehicle around and drives past me, and as he does he stares straight at me, as though he’s known all along that I’ve been standing there. The station wagon heads toward the pier. I can tell he’s looking in the rear-view mirror at me. Children are pouring out of the school, running in all directions, crossing his path and waving to him. His concentration is divided between me and the narrow road to the pier, his eyes darting from one object to the other, as though he is being pulled in two directions, away from me and toward me, so that his vehicle, ancient and rusty, sputters and stops, backfires and sputters on again, moving out of my sight at a slow, funereal pace.
The children pass by, raucously greeting me in the slow, polite English they’ve just learned in school. I ask them about the man in the station wagon. Everyone knows it’s Gino.
‘He’s the doctor, right?’ I ask them.
They try to find the word for it, but haven’t learned it yet. A girl attempts to explain: ‘He prepares the dead for burying. Everyone needs him.’
I finally find Janya back at the house. She looks distraught, and I’m bracing for bad news: malaria, dengue, whatever. Instead she smiles wanly and says, ‘I’m all right.’
‘I saw you coming out of the clinic. You got me worried.’
‘He says I’ll be much better in a few days. I feel okay.’
‘So apparently this guy is not just the local herbalist slash doctor, but is also some kind of mortician. And a fisherman, to boot.’
‘Yeah. Not too many people around here. They have to wear many hats. I asked him about the boy.’
‘So he’s the official historian too?’
‘Just thought he might know. Since he’s, you know, kind of late-middle-aged. He says that must have happened when he was eighteen or so. He doesn’t remember much, except that there was talk of it for a while.’
‘The women at the plaza said pretty much the same thing.’
‘He also said there’s a myth around here about people who are lost at sea. It’s horrible. I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Was that why you seemed so upset?’
She doesn’t reply.
‘Tell me. Get it off your chest.’
‘Okay. They say those who are lost at sea try to come back every seven years.’
‘Like ghosts, you mean? Or zombies?’
‘I don’t know. Like reincarnation, I guess. They try to come back any way they can. And sometimes, if they can’t, or if people prevent them from doing so, they get violent.’
‘Whoa, creepy. Like how?’
‘Like pulling other people out to sea. That’s why so many others drown. It’s a recurring cycle.’
‘Well, if that’s the case, this place is a going to be a ghost town soon.’
‘Yeah, it’s really bizarre.’
‘Well, to be fair, everyone has their crazy myths. When I was growing up, I used to hear a lot about the Cathars, the original people of Provence. They had priests, the bon gens, who believed that the act of conception is the worst form of cruelty.’
‘Life is suffering and all that?’
‘Yeah. They believed the physical world is an illusion created by the devil Satanael. The world was created to lure people away from the divine. A newborn is one more spark of light trapped in earthly matter, one more soul condemned to human suffering.’
‘And we must do everything we can to prevent them from being born.’
‘I don’t know. Contraception? Abortion? In any case, it’s a good argument, right? For not having kids. Those double-income-no-kids yuppies in the ’80s were on to something.’
‘So you don’t ever want to have kids. In a Cathar sort of way.’
‘I don’t think I’d ever be a good father anyway.’
‘Guys always say that. Then they become fathers and they change.’
‘And what if you’re right? What if this thing is hereditary? This condition.’
‘The vertigo. The seizures. The blackouts when the lost boy seems to be talking to me, telling me to find out what really happened. You yourself wanted to come here and find out.’
‘I didn’t say that. I was just asking.’
‘What if it were hereditary?’
‘We don’t know that. And it shouldn’t bother you so much.’
‘It does bother me. Besides, I’ll probably mess up my kid so bad he’ll wind up hating me. No, the Cathars made a lot of sense, if you ask me.’
‘And what would happen if people all thought like that? The extinction of the human race?’
‘Ah, the world would be so much better without us, no? No war, no racism, no global warming.’
She still seems distraught. I push her hair behind her ear. She’s sweating like crazy. ‘Anything else that guy told you?’
‘No,’ she says, resolutely. ‘That’s about it.’
The next afternoon, I bring back a coconut crab sold to me by a bunch of kids at the plaza. Janya’s much better, and I figure it’s time we try the local fare.
She’s shocked to see it. It’s a bizarre, humongous thing, with one claw as large as its body to crack coconuts open. It’s been said to have snapped off a human hand or two. But this isn’t the reason she’s repelled by it.
‘That guy told me there’s some kind of taboo against eating this creature,’ she says.
‘What guy? What taboo?’
‘The medicine man slash mortician?’
‘He told me that crab’s been known to devour the bodies of the drowned. So people here refuse to eat it.’
‘Come on. It doesn’t eat human flesh. And in other parts of the country, it’s a rare delicacy.’
‘Not here. That’s why those kids sold it to you. They can’t do anything with it.’
‘Well, no use wasting a perfectly good crab.’
I boil a pot of water for it. I lift the crab and hold it over the pot.
‘What an awful creature,’ Janya says. ‘What an awful death.’
‘We can throw it back in the water, if you want.’
‘You want it, I can tell. That creature is doomed.’
I slip the crab in. It turns pale in the boiling water, thrashes around in the pot, then quickly turns a bright tangerine. In just a few minutes, dinner is ready. I place the crab on the table. I twist off the giant claw and smash it with a hammer. The claw oozes a slimy, purple muck. The house is suddenly filled with a sickening, sulfuric stench. She takes the hammer from me and cracks the carapace open.
‘What the fuck,’ she says. The mangled crab is a mush of purple, putrescent ooze. She scoops it in a plastic bag and takes it out.
A vehicle rumbles past the house. She recognizes it. So do I. It’s Gino’s station wagon. She pretends not to see it, drops the bag in the trash. The station wagon stops briefly in front of the house, the motor sputtering. Gino’s looking at her intently, and when he sees me coming out behind her, he steps on the gas and drives away.
I stand by the road, watching the vehicle head off. The hatch is open. It’s stacked with swordfish, their glistening spears sticking out. I keep on looking until the car rumbles up the road toward the other side of the island.
I look her way. She’s standing behind the door, watching me.
‘What the fuck was that all about?’ I ask her.
‘Maybe he wanted to sell his fish. We’re the only tourists on the island. We’re prime targets.’
‘He didn’t look like he wanted to sell shit to me.’
‘I don’t know, Mathieu. Who knows what these people are up to?’
On the sandy road, there’s a bright red scrawl where the station wagon has passed, a vivid trail of blood.
She walks alone to the sea. When she reaches the lunar crags of volcanic rock she walks barefoot, picking out craters of white sand, shards of coral cutting her soles. At the edge of the water there’s a flat bed of porous rock that looks like a hard black sponge.
The water rushes in. A foaming spurt shoots out of a hole about a foot wide. She stands close to it, letting the water drench her.
She notices that I’ve followed her. She pays no attention but remains standing there. The water keeps pulling out and rushing in, shooting one geyser after another.
Then she turns around to head back home, and as she passes me she says, ‘I’m going to the dance at the plaza tonight.’
‘Who with?’ I ask. But she’s already walked away.
It’s the night before Holy Week begins, and rose-colored lights are strung all over the plaza, incandescent bulbs cocooned in paper lanterns, an extravagance on an island with scant electricity to spare. This is as wild as the residents get before Holy Week. No carnival here, but they’ve stocked up on miñavajeng, which is the only thing they have plenty of, a sweet wine fermented from palm that tonight flows freely.
She left early this evening ahead of me, though I had earlier insisted I wanted to go together. I find her in the plaza. She’s wearing a long silk skirt I’ve never seen. It makes her look foreign to me, more so because with her features, she can blend right in with these people. She’s sitting in a corner of the square, on a slab of weathered stone that must have once been part of a wall.
In the center of the plaza, a young girl is dancing a slow dance, her movements simulating the motion of water, accompanied by the high-pitched caterwaul of a violin.
Janya’s watching her, mesmerized. Under the rose lights I notice that she’s already starting to look older, which first shows in the eyes. She’s completely melded with the dancer, and her identity has been willingly annihilated by the presence of one so young.
I stay behind the crowd along the edge of the plaza. I just want to observe her in that state that’s unknown to me, in which I don’t exist.
I notice a man staring at her from the other side of the plaza and realize it’s Gino. He’s dressed more formally than the other residents, in a white shirt and bow tie. Imagine that, a bow tie in a place like this. His hair is streaked with gray, sleeked back with pomade. He’s smoking a pipe, silver smoke billowing in the air.
She’s still watching the young girl. Gino briefly turns his attention to the dancer, watching her move. But this doesn’t interest him. His gaze goes back to Janya. She shifts her attention briefly toward him, no more than a fleeting glance, and smiles.
And at that moment I know something inescapable has begun, something I have seen coming but had pointedly refused to acknowledge.
I walk toward her and sit by her side. She doesn’t even notice me, or if she does, she doesn’t want to be distracted from this trance. Gino is still watching her. He keeps his eyes on her even as I ask, ‘You know that man is staring at you, right?’
‘At her,’ she says, meaning the girl. ‘Not me.’
‘Who is she?’
‘Patec,’ she replies, without even looking my way. She’s using the local dialect, one of hundreds in this archipelago, and spoken only on this island. She has always picked up languages fast, which never fails to surprise me. ‘That’s his daughter. Patec, cocoon, someone who’s about to grow wings.’
That night, after the dance, lying by her side, I hear a strange sound coming from somewhere very close, as close as my heart. Then I realize it’s me, I’ve been talking in my sleep. I turn over to her side to see if she’s awake, if she’s heard. I’m hoping she hasn’t.
‘I don’t like this place,’ I whisper. ‘I wish we hadn’t come.’
She’s lying on her side, facing me, staring at me blankly. She lifts her hand to touch me, then changes her mind. Her hand hangs in midair, then she pulls it away and turns her back to me.
I force my eyes open. Darkness. A roar bursting out of my heart, like a series of explosions, a rapid-fire that shakes me out of bed.
Janya follows me out of the room. The wooden shutters are slamming in the wind. A flash of lightning illuminates the shuddering walls. We rush around the house, latching the bars against the shutters. They seem to heave and swell, as though the wood has become pliant.
The storm has come suddenly, without warning. The wind howls, spinning round and round the house, so close and so alive we can follow its sound encircling us, like an animal finding a way in.
One of the shutters breaks open. A spray of water, like a boat that has sprung a leak. And then a fluttering cloud of wings, a distressed flock of sparrows, bursts in and fills the room.
The next morning we survey the damage done by the storm. She picks up the shattered remains of shells, studies them intently, and finally casts them aside.
‘We can move to another house,’ I tell her. ‘It’s no big deal.’
‘It’s time to go,’ she says.
‘You forget why we came here.’
‘No one remembers anything. It makes no sense to stay.’
We take a jeep to the island’s airport, the old army barracks a short distance from the square. Today the short stretch of grassy field that serves as its runway has been taken over by ducks and goats. Another, larger storm has been spotted over the South China Sea, a swirling, germinating nebula blinking on the local meteorological station’s radar screen. She peers at the monitor silently for a long time, unaware of the amused stares of the locals who peek in. They’ve seen hundreds of tourists stranded before.
Outside, I can see the runway stretching on one end toward the sea, and on the other toward the dormant volcano. The volcano’s slope is a deep emerald green, streaked with silver rivulets of water that course from still undiscovered sources, primitive and pure.
The wind starts to pick up again. Acacia trees quiver. I can hear the murmuring rustle of their branches as they brace for yet another typhoon. We are trapped in all this beauty.
We finally manage to catch a flight out three days later, changing planes in Tuguegarao, at another rundown airport. It looks like the site of a military coup with its barracks and guards bearing M16s.
An antiquated DC-10 takes us back to Manila. All through the hour’s flight we are hammered by the storm, which seems intent on pursuing us, giving up only when we’re halfway south to the city, growling like a mad dog that’s just victoriously defended its territory, foaming at the mouth, catching its breath, still barking an occasional thunder or two just to make sure the intruders continue scuttling away.
We arrive in the city that afternoon in steady but less ferocious rain. In the taxi to the hotel, I blurt out the question that’s been nagging me: ‘What happened between you and that guy?’
‘I don’t know what you mean.’
‘Then what the fuck is wrong?’
‘Nothing’s wrong. I’m tired. Going there was a stupid thing to do.’
At a stop light, I roll the window down and buy strands of jasmine from a homeless girl peddling them along the road. The girl must be no more than ten or eleven, her tattered dress soaked with rain and torn in many places, revealing patches of dark, glistening skin that she makes no effort to hide.
‘That’s two cents for every strand,’ Janya says. ‘That’s all she lives on.’
The girl holds out her hand to accept my peso. The city’s blurred landscape is a mess of shanties and high-rises. And endless crowds, bodies without faces. There are many more of these young girls in the city but they’re just bodies among other bodies, mere objects, temporary and corruptible, plenteous and replaceable. The supply is inexhaustible. The long trip back has made me queasy and weak. The rain patters into the cab. I roll the window up. The taxi is filled with the flowers’ perfume.
Relic Light is an excerpt from Eric Gamalinda’s forthcoming novel, The Descartes Highlands, published by Akashic Books.
Photograph by Wayne Lo