An intense tropical cyclone is
an almost circular storm of
extremely low pressure and high winds. —National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
eye wall n. The ring of thunderstorms that surrounds a storm’s eye. The heaviest rain, strongest winds and worst turbulence are normally experienced here.
Up there, the sky takes the shape of unpressed sheets laid out on an unmade bed, still soaked in the gray musk of sleep. Lila would rise and there would be rain, dropping on rooftops, piercing the moving air like an infant’s sneeze.
Drowning men and women would bob up from murky waters, either drowning some still flailing on driftwoods that used to be their table’s legs, or a flat flapping wall where the family picture hung, drifting in the current of the raging river—to its very mouth. They all went off to sea, off to some other land with hopes of a better something or the other—better food, perhaps, or a better house, or a better church, or better yet nothing at all.
That is, if neither water nor wave would gobble them up, neither lightning nor jellyfish would burn off their skin, neither wind nor their own submission would blow them back home.
Back home where the floating carcass of rats waited to be buried under the heaps of trash now floating too on the water, now slowly corroding, mixing its decaying particles with what felt partly like slime, where the small island people floated and waited for the sun to come out and land them once more on that dry solid ground.
Lila would watch from the window of her 24th floor condominium. Her mother could be one of those black blots floating down the Pasig River, drudging on with all the other muck.
Something edges with age—she would wonder about the hazy images of their barungbarong when she was three, of mother cooking tuyo or opening a can of sardines that Mang Temyo gave nanay for singing the other night at his sarisari.
Something rumbles in the sky—a goddess tripping over an air pack, tumbling down, spilling rice wine on her own face, smelling of acrid vinegar. The gods would laugh at her.
Lila would shake the memory with shame, her mother’s voice still ringing shrilly in her ear. Mother had such a pretty lilt. She would remember how the drunken men kissed her mother’s wet shoulder. It was raining then, too.
At the last note of mother’s song, Mang Temyo handed Lila a can of sardines and tucked in the small of her palm a drenched P100 note that reminded her of ube. Her stomach growled. When they got home, her mother opened the can and Lila gobbled half the can’s contents spilled all over last night’s tutong.
Her mother changed her clothes then drank water. She gave Lila the rest of their day’s ulam. But that was a fairy tale. Grown women are tired of fairytales. Women often tire of each other.
Lila would remember. She listed them all in fragments so the gaps could keep her from crying. What’s the use of losing face? I didn’t come away just to have men laugh at me.
1. Mother coming home at four in the morning
2. Mother smelling of an old man’s perfume
3. Mother giving her little girl her baon
4. Old man coming to pick them up one day
5. Old man telling her he was her new father
6. What was a father? Lila couldn’t remember
7. Old man’s wife whipping her mother until mother bled
8. Lila and mother returning to the barungbarong
9. Old man dying and paying them “their dues”
10. Mother and Lila claiming a new house with the old man’s paper
11. This one was made not of rotting wood but of stone
12. Mother getting old and forcing Lila to marry
13. Dirty old man giving Lila a nice ring
14. Lila wanting to fly off to America—for something better
15. A better house, better life, younger men?
16. Mother slapping Lila’s face
17. Lila runs away—flies away
18. Lila singing in the white man’s land
19. Snow was cold, but so was cash
20. An ad: The canary costs a fortune when it comes from the tropics
21. A richer Lila flying back and looking for her mother
22. No one knows where mother is. No one knows who mother is.
23. Mother fades like a spent tropical depression
24. Lila stays behind and waits for the sky to clear out
10:45, Monday morning
Someone from the radio
Announcing signal no. 3
My namesake storm
Perhaps this day should go like:
I went to see you today. The poet you sold our house to gave me your old urn. He said that the ash inside it should go back to the sea. He never told me it was father. Who was he?
You should meet your grand daughter—I named her Maria, after the hollows of the moon. She’s seven months now, with your nose and the father’s blue eyes. I never cared to ask for his name, though. I figured it wouldn’t matter. I didn’t know, father.
I hope you are well, though. I threw the ash on water—maybe there he could join you. Where are you?
From up here I can’t see the river from the land. I see black blots floating on water outside my window. I try to decipher the edges of the shadows. Perhaps you’re somewhere there?
The sky is dark, nanay. Maria is strong, though. She doesn’t cry much. My baby is silent, unlike me. She should have been yours. You would have had an easier time. I’m sorry for giving you a hard one..
I would have made it up to you, but I couldn’t find you. I miss you, nay. Are you there where the wind howled?
Maria cried for the first time the next morning. The nursemaid found the door of the condominium ajar. Outside, the wind was howling and the sky was gray. The balcony door blew open where Lila left her sandals and her clothes.
Last night, a pale naked woman was found floating on the floodwaters. No one can recognize her. Or maybe they didn’t have enough papers to know her.
On this island, people walk around nameless. You can find their hair in a piece of blue paper and not know the difference.
Anyway, it shouldn’t matter now. Water only either drifts away or brings forth debris. Twenty bodies were found this morning. Three days from now, they will be burnt in a funeral pyre. The ashes will be thrown together in a burning boat, off to open sea, like the old pagan ways.
The church is already half drowned. The bell clang ominously throughout the night, like it was itching from all the rust the wind and water brought to its surface.
Up there, the sky takes the shape of unmade sheets laid out on an unmade bed, still soaking in the gray musk of sleep. Lila would rise and there would be rain. But there is no rain now, just the sound of rumbling.
But men didn’t laugh anymore. They felt nothing, the way one finds himself awakened at the shore after twelve days of drifting. One is too tired even to stop breathing. One just tries to shield his body from the cold.
Lila would try to calm Maria’s crying. But the skies are clear now, and Lila was no longer watching.
eye n. The innermost portion of the storm.This zone is surprisingly calm with little or no wind. Within the eye, the sky is often clear. Over the ocean the sea can be treacherous under the eye because high waves are converging
Mama said she couldn’t read the letters well on that blue paper. She wasn’t sure if my real name was Maria or Maia. She said Señorita Lila only called me “baby”. I called her señorita because that’s how Mama told the story. Mama called me Maia, partly because it sounded gentler without the “r”, and partly because if she was going to keep me, she didn’t want to name me after the sea. My people hada fear of drowning.
Mama took good care of me. For me, the lady Mama told about was a legend, like Makiling in Laguna. Or was that Los Baños? I’m really not so sure. I am not good at telling places. Mostly I am lost.
From my window, the hills rolled like little clumps of multi-colored lights into the night. Ever since my real mother died, Mama moved me with her family here in Benguet, where I only see water from the faucet or in gentle afternoon drizzles.
The fog, Mama said, is also water, that’s why it freezes the skin. Only it kills you silently because it makes you breathe itself without letting you mind it penetrating your flesh.
Mama made my brothers and me some sweaters to keep us away from the cold. When we breathe in the fog, it feels heavy. I took a bath one day and breathed in some of the water. It stung my nostrils. That’s when I knew what mother meant about water trying to kill.
She lost her husband in the storm. I lost my real mother the same way. Mama and I kept each other for mutual need. I’m not sure if I was able to fulfill hers, but she took good care of me, as she said she always did since I was born.
Mama tells me I was born in America, and everything we have now, I own through my mother. Mama said señorita sang very well, and so did my grandmother. I wonder what happened to my own voice.
Mama wonders where I got my blue eyes. She hopes that when I give birth to my baby, she will have blue eyes as well. I hope she gets a brown pair. Something to recall the earth of these hills, like her father’s.
Jose is a good man. Ever since Kuya moved back to the city and married Ate Mela, my husband has been helping me take care of Mama, who has grown sick and old. At sixty, she often has hallucinations.
She always tells me how my pale eyes do not always catch the light. It is as if I am almost blind. She says I have my head turned up to the sky. I tell her it is where I find things clear.
She shakes her head and points to where Jose sleeps all throughout the night. A red bruise ran behind his left ear. Mama asked me if I kissed him there. I told her that it was probably an allergy from picking strawberries. It was December and the wind drifted from strange lands. I bid Mama good night and took her to her room.
I drifted to where my husband whistled in his sleep. It was like listening to bamboo reeds, swaying with the wind. His flesh was pale as mine—flushed in places where the pores could not breathe, or where heat revolved through touch.
I stroked his nape with my forefinger, where I knew it would tickle. He didn’t budge. He must have been tired. I breathed him in, my limbs grasping his heaving body. I buried my nose under his chin where the stubble was starting to peak through the pore.
The flesh where my belly started to grow felt cold. I felt the creature start to kick. It didn’t hurt. It only made me long for more—more of musky smells and salty taste. My freezing fingers gently slapped his left cheek. Two pools of mud stared back at me.
“Mai, I’m sorry.”
I couldn’t hear him. My lips found their way to his and started to suckle. At first, his numb body only sobbed back and whispered words trying to calm my raging own. Here, feel this hearth. Is this what you missed in me? I’m still here. Why look the other way?
“I didn’t mean to. Nothing happened. They were just teasing me.”
I clawed at his shoulders and his hands grasped my hips. Where my nails dug, it must’ve hurt. He flung at me with rage, the pools of mud boiling where his lashes ended. The creature was calm, but I felt her swaying. We must have put her to sleep. The fog was crawling where we lay. I left the window open, and the hills throbbed into the night.
With one final breath, he laid there spent, my Jose, a moist body cupping my own beneath stained sheets. I tore away to face him. There, still glittering behind his left ear was the red mark. I touched it, and his face flushed, as if begging.
There is a point when a man does not wholly own the woman anymore. It is when she carries his child, and all his essence, she already contains on her own. This is why in the most animal of instances, after mating, the female mantis eats the male. Jose taught me that when we were studying for Biology. He must have remembered.
My lips, they found their way below his left ear and started to suckle. The first taste was bitter, like when you try to suck out poison from snakebite. I spat it out. He looked offended.
I smiled and shook my head, then kissed the patch of flesh once more, claiming the bruise as my own making—with each turn it touches the edge of my teeth, with each turn I can taste the salt of his flesh, I claimed him back.
I was happy to see my husband cry.
It is easy to forgive with words, but more lasting when spent on flesh. This way, you do not drench like rain does only to dry up when the sun comes out.
Fog, Mama said, is much like water. Only, it kills silently. That’s why it freezes the skin. That way, when too much heat burns the flesh, one still wishes for cold, no matter how much it bites.
spiral rain bands n. bands of thunderstorms that wrap around a hurricane.
My little Tina was dead when they pulled her out of my womb. I cannot remember much about her but that she often reminds me of Mama and how she wanted Tina to inherit my blue eyes. I didn’t see the color of her eyes because she never opened them. Clean and wrapped in white blanket, the doctor didn’t want me to see her. They wanted to put her out in the morgue with other bodies lost in the rain. I told them, no, I want to see my child.
It was terrible, how this sense of calm just covered my entire being, seared me right through the bone. Outside, I saw my husband crying. Mama was having a heart attack. My in-laws were stricken with shock. They tried to console me, but there was no real need for them to console me.
My daughter was calm. She was cold and lifeless, yes, but she was beautiful. Her skin was grayish white, almost like pearl grounded to chalk dust. I held her weight the way the sky holds the weight of drifting rain. It wasn’t going to rain this time. Tina was closing the line.
After eight days, I was able to convince Mama to bring me back to the sea. We went to Vigan, where the waves hurled at the boulders, but they were too small to eat the land. The storm was almost over, almost leaving but not quite done yet.
I held Cristina’s ash in a glass jar kept in my silk bag. I hoped my baby was comfortable. The air stilled. The edge of the dark clouds was nearing the horizon’s edge. Where the clouds ended, the red rays of the setting sun were trying to poke through.
Jose built a small banca for our daughter three weeks before I gave birth to her. He painted in blue and promised me that we were going to take our child to the sea one day—so I would know what the sea looked like beyond the photographs.
There, we lighted a candle at the corner where the wood pointed to the sea. Jose added a sail, so our little girl could let herself be drifted where the wind wished to take her.
I dropped the bag onto wooden seat and Jose and I pushed the banca up to the point where the water reached our waists. The waves took her then and we bid her leave.
I kept but a lock of her brown hair in my locket. On stormy days, I would tell my sons how hurricanes come and go in our islands. And in the hills of Benguet, I would teach them not to be scared of seas.
Montage Vol. 6 • August 2002