Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Holiday, Chapter 6


The sky broiled with the leading edge of a giant arc that was sweeping across the Sulu Sea. Although only a few drops of rain blew occasional bullets against his face, it was still very warm. He was not certain what to do. His guidebook specifically said that Palawan was not in harms way. The track beaten by typhoons every season, the guidebook assured, was a great distance to the south and east of Palawan.

Impulsively he waved at a motor scooter, and was comforted by the young man’s big white smile.
“Where you wan go?”
Hugh felt somewhat embarrassed. The locals must despise the tourists, must think for all their money, they are lazy and stupid and greedy for pleasure. He winced, and said softly: “The beach.”
“Oh, White Beach?”
“Huh? It’s called ‘Whites Beach’?”
The man laughed. “No, just White. It’s no far. Just one point five.”
Encouraged by the man’s can do attitude, he got in and they pulled away.
“You not stay long on White Beach okay,” the man said over the roar of the engine and the wind.
The man waved at the maddening forest around them. Hugh made eye contact, showed the thumbs up. He liked this guy. He had some grit.

But Hugh felt inwardly confused. Why? Why had he decided to this? He didn’t know what it was. He just didn’t feel clear about where he was, and he wanted the open space of a beach to see over the forest, to get his bearings. And perhaps seeing this storm, seeing the waves, he’d get a feel for what to do because he hadn’t planned on staying in Puerto that night. He’d wanted to go to Sabang on the South China Sea side of the long Palawan dagger, and now he wanted a headsup if that was feasible. But he wanted to see for himself. It was a rare mistake.

The 1.5km felt like 10km. The motor scooter was struggling through mud, and then thick dune sand. On both sides the jungle had been violently slashed and driven back by machete blades. The dense jungle sheltered them from the strong winds, more than both passengers had expected.

The forest cleared, revealing the cool blue of the South China Sea. It swelled like a cleavage subtly into view, and for a moment Hugh was stunned by the sheer color of the vast gently undulating expanse. The water seemed to glow like a tropical drink set on the counter of a backlit bar. There were some huge blackening cumulonimbus in the background, but he thought he’d seen worse storms in continental South Africa. What he didn’t expect was this sea. It was as calm as a swimming pool, sometimes flattenening into a shimmer of faint corrugations. The wind was behind them. The storm, he should have guessed, was approaching from the other side, towards the Turtle and Honda Bays on the Eastern shoreline, and of course, towards Puerto Princesa Bay.

“Do you think the storm will come here?”
“I think so. But there is time for a swim.”

Hugh hadn’t thought of that, but the idea suddenly appealed. He walked over the warm wet sand, dropping his clothes on a wooden bench under a beach shelter constructed from driftwood sticks.
The water was very warm. He sank into it, feeling conscious of his absurdly white skin and bulging stomach, but trying to enjoy it all the same. Startled fish skipped clear of the water. He felt something brush by his calf.
“Wow,” he murmured, “these waters are just full of life.”
He submerged again, swimming underwater, enjoying the soft salty water against his skin.

He came up, his warm body shining and soapy, and looked back at the beach. The motor scooter was throbbing. It was a surprisingly loud sound, but he guessed the flat beach and calm water amplified it a great deal more than normal. He waved back at the solitary figure on the beach. He glanced over his shoulder and saw a series of lightning bolts zap down at the sea. He was horrified to see that the electric spark had illuminated mighty pitch back silhouettes behind the closest storm. A warm gust pushed past him. As he walked knee deep across the broad white sandbank to the narrow platinum band of wet strand, the motor scooter bellowed to life. Suddenly he noticed the tops of the palm trees. It was not the palms, but the dark soup of airborne debris behind them, and the growing moan, that kicked his feet into an electrified run. Now the man was waving, and he’d turned on the headlight.

The man’s eyes were wild. He’d almost pulled away before Hugh reached him. The engine roared as they went back through the deep sand, and they nearly skidded over the mud into a series of bamboo spears poking out of the side of the cleared jungle. Once on the even dirt road, they found themselves entirely alone. They sped as fast as the motor would go over the lonely windswept road towards Puerta Princesa. The motor scooter was being buffeted violently by wind now, and dismembered leaves and branches were now flying across the road, the hands of trees gesticulating frantically. A large leaf slapped Hugh on the cheek. He pulled at it and the wind tore its soft leafy flesh to pieces. The large fan of a palm tree flew end over end, the fan brushed red cuts over their faces as it passed.

The dirt road seemed to be on fire, as milky white dust was torn off the surface. Then the rain whipped at them, and the world turned into a dark, roiling mass. It was in that moment that they suffered a terrific concussion: something very big, like an oversized pool cue, hit them from the side. Two men and their machine shot off the road and landed in the jungle. One man split like shattered watermelon, the machine lost its voice in a lung bursting bang that ripped it into a grenade of sharp greasy chunks of serrated metal. The other person landed deeper between the trees, a small fountain spraying out of the side of his head (above his ear). Although unconscious, he traveled smoothly down a muddy path created by forest animals, and skidded one third of the way into a sort of burrow.

While he slept through the eviscerating nightmare, the jungle that kept him was carved and slit into hammers and spears, and for several hours, it was as though the wind turned itself into Machete; slicing and hurling javelins and spending its fury on rock and man and plant alike. Even silver fish that jumped out of the churning waters were diced by ferocious clouds of black and swarming debris.

And in time the black blood oozing out of his skull, and the black mud in which he lay were indistinguishable.

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