Independencia by Bryant Apolonio
Bryant Apolonio is an award-winning writer and lawyer currently living on Larrakia Country. He won the Deborah Cass Prize in 2021. His fiction has appeared in places like Liminal, Kill Your Darlings and Overland. He is working on a collection of short stories.
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. No marching band jouncing along to the national anthem. There’s only the heckle of a thousand waylaid travellers. Only glassy customer service smiles and apologies over the P.A system. Flights delayed, delayed, cancelled. Always skittish around crowds, Arturo told his wife he’d go outside and see if he could learn more about what was happening, to see if anyone could help them. ‘Take Jun with you,’ Gina 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 concourse. Queues shoved up against the service counters like a river delta reaching the coast. All around them, passengers awaited news. They lay on the benches or on the carpet, resting their heads on suitcases and bunched-up clothes. Arturo felt his son’s small hand pulling him towards the windows that faced the tarmac where the planes stood waiting. Jun liked watching them inch forward –chrome and combustion coming to life, 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. The pair emerged on Aquino Avenue where they found street vendors setting up roadside shops. Children – some as young as Jun – weaved between stalls bearing boxes full of snacks. Unruly knockabouts with salesman flair, calling out Quail eggs! duck eggs! peanuts! while local cops watched on listlessly.
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?’
Both officers had the look of men perpetually affronted: by Turo’s question, by the heat and smog and chaos of the street, by the civilian throng around them, and above all by the administrator who’d exiled them here – here, instead of an air-conditioned card-hall or Pasay brothel – to wait out the end of the world.
‘Where are you headed, pare?’ the younger officer asked. His face shone in the heat.
‘Sydney,’ Arturo said. He had relatives there who’d schemed for years to get them over. They needed diligent workers, one cousin had told Turo and his wife. They needed men with brains. He prophesied food on the table each night 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.
He must’ve had 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 held a sign that read REV 8:8. He was shouting something. The cops watched him for a while, expecting a disturbance, but he wasn’t hassling anybody and the passersby ignored him. In fact, they seemed to barely register his presence. 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. You get your family home and keep them there.’
Arturo watched the cops trudge off. Then he looked down at Jun. ‘Now what?’
The crowd had grown much larger in the short time they’d been outside. People were 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 there. There were harried-looking businessmen. There were young people who should have been on holiday. Vivid heaps of luggage resting 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. ‘You see that, Jun?’
‘It’s a fire,’ said the boy.
Arturo nodded. ‘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 lone intruder scrabbling to fill his pockets with precious gems. A scarlet beast behind him, rising from its long slumber, with ancient wings outstretched. 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, obscured the red palm of sun. Disintegrated pumice and silicon covered 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 Sports Complex, 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 top of the stands, it’s hard to see how far the lines go. You will get to know this wide-eyed march of the survivors. It’s the story of the next century. The whole place blanketed in the drab olive of army tarp. Pope John Paul II’s condolences over the speakers. He prays for the missing. San Antonio, Patron Saint 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 teenage 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 didn’t particularly like or even 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 receipt across the counter.
‘Did you see that?’ she asked.
‘Ma’am, I’ve upgraded your seats. 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 a new job. If we had been 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 country’s declaration of independence from the Spanish.
‘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 as if waiting 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. Just as she was on the cusp of leaving, the earth itself – a bland-faced arbitrator – set down its ruling in Arturo’s favour. 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 honeymoon in the Alps. They scrimped and starved the whole way – four-man sleeper carriages, cup noodle dinners and nights in run-down hotels – but she loved it all the same. Odyssey sang in her blood. 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 and, in a way, she didn’t.
They took a cab down the highway. They passed cement trucks that looked 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 us 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 at 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 filled a pail with boiling 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. Steam had begun 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. He wished his customers a happy Independence Day. Arturo 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 had thought that it made him look like a French philosopher or the leading man in a Lino Brocka movie – contemplative, dashing, in spite of the shapeless 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.
Arturo 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 stretched his arms up over his head and heard knots of muscle pop. Then he walked back to the store. The old man had his ear up to a transistor radio. ‘Manong,’ 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 lavender shampoo 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 want to 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 that knew better.