He awakened to a cool metal blade snipping hair beside his ear. The bulge and shudder of bright orange tent flaps. The far-off sigh of the sea. The feeling of a beard, and then his eyes opened.
A young Filipino woman, no a girl, was bending over him, and cutting his hair. Her eyes stretched as she saw he’d woken; she dashed out of the tent. In the minute she was away he smelled the faint scent of death that still lingered in the tent. He lifted his shirt and saw the closed eyelashes of stitches under his ribs. The gray had been replaced by a faint watermark.
Several faces poked into the tent. “Well, welcome back,” one silvery haired man said with enthusiasm, his bright blue eyes wide and happy. “Give him this,” he said breathlessly to the girl.
The other faces blinked at him for a moment, then withdrew.
The girl gave him a sugary drink, perhaps coconut water or something. He sipped it delicately from a supine position.
“Where am I?”
“You’re at Claire’s Beach Cottages, in Sabang. You’ve been here for three weeks. We really thought we would loose you.”
“That’s Robert, my husband.”
She cut locks from his hair for a few more minutes. The wind buffeted the tent impatiently.
She spoke softly: “He bought the cottages from my mother.”
High managed a small smile.
She pulled his shirt without inhibition, she’d obviously had to do it for some time. She moved her fingers over the smooth skin below his ribcage.
“We’ve been treating your wound with strong alcohol and…what do you call them… anti-septic herbs. There are no doctors here so we were very worried.”
She picked up the scissors and resumed cutting his hair. She told him that when he was brought here, they wanted to put him in one of the rooms in the house or adjoining cottages, but those already in them wouldn’t give them up. He lifted himself up on an elbow and saw many other tents in the garden besides his, and noticed some people lying in hammocks, talking in soft, serious, but inaudible tones. He could see over her shoulder that the sun was shining outside; it appeared to be a gorgeous day.
“Lie down now, rest; you’re in no condition to move around, much less walk.”
He looked at her clothes, her face, her hands. His hand took hers; her eyes swiveled uncomfortably to meet his: “Thank you,” he said “…for caring for me like this…” And then he slept some more.
It was very early the next morning that Hugh finally emerged, restored if not fully healed, from the near fatal impact on Rizal Avenue several weeks earlier. He stood in a small school of tents, the sea churning nearby, an empty hammock swinging like a spidery pendulum in the early wind.
Walking gingerly on the soft sand of the beach, he sensed his muscles had atrophied. The foam of the sea felt as cold as needles, and yet he knew it couldn’t be that cold. He was amazed at the lightness of his body. He guessed he must have shed 10kg or more. He tested and explored his new body with small jumps in the sand. He still felt a dull ache under his ribs, but for once the stitched eye did not shed a tear of blood.
“Are you alright?”
It was the old man, with a small boy behind him carrying a long fishing pole and an oversized plastic box, presumably containing fishing tackle and bait.
“Yes, I think so. Thank you.”
“Well don’t thank me. My wife looked after you. Get strong, we need every pair of hands around here now. There is a lot of work to do, and it’s obvious we’ll receive no help from the government.”
“Why? What’s happened?”
“An awful lot has happened while you were sleeping. When I get back I’ll give you an update.”
“No, tell me now,” Hugh said, stepping closer to the old man, glancing quickly down at the concerned looking little boy, and back into the old man’s expression-filled eyes.
“Well… I never know how to tell people the news any more. Sometimes I don’t know if I can.”
“I know, but I’d like to know. Please.”
“Alright. The world has lost a few cities…to put it mildly.”
“I know about that.”
“You heard about Shanghai, 20 million in that city alone, gone.”
“Yes I know. What about London and New York?”
“They’re still there. The fireworks seem to be over, but there have been rolling blackouts everywhere so far as we know. From South Korea – God help them – to South Africa, even New Zealand. I’m from England by the way, Kent. The United States started seizing oil tankers and directing them towards New York and New Orleans. As a result, a lot of ships have been sunk as a result of other countries fighting over the scraps America overlooked. And every major oil field is on fire, save a few small ones in Africa.”
“So America has emerged unscathed?”
“Not at all. Two trillion has been wiped off the stock exchange – that’s just Wall Street. There are riots and unemployment in the world’s strongest economy and the feedback mechanism has spread the contagion of hyperinflation and instability around the world. Look, we don’t have CNN, but we have the radio and we still don’t know precisely what happened. The world has changed. We have our hands tied now, simply because we no longer had the resources we once had. And the little we have seems to be running out as well.”
High looked down at his feet. “I understand.”
“We know it started with Jerusalem, and at about the same time we had some catastrophic weather here, and in the Gulf.”
“The Gulf of Mexico?”
“Well, as a matter of fact right now there are a series of super storms lining up in the Gulf of Mexico. It seems like this is not only a war without end, but where the weather is our worst enemy. You see we believe it started because a very big storm hit the Gulf of Aquaba and disrupted one of the busiest shipping lanes for about a week. That put incredible pressure on certain nodes, especially on America’s East Coast.”
The man put his hands at his sides, looked out over the sparkling diamonds in the sea.
“It was a shock. America’s inventories suddenly dried up, and so they seized tankers and used air craft carriers to chaperone them towards US ports. Because you see US cities had already come to an absolute standstill. By the way, they still are.”
Hugh kicked the warm sand softly.
“China didn’t like their ships being redirected. Understandably they kicked up a fuss, and made very direct threats against the US. But the US had little choice. They didn’t back down and the next thing North Korea seemed to be acting as an agent for the Chinese; they put the first missiles into the sky. The Japanese and US forces in the Republic of Korea forces shot them all down. Then something happened in Lahore, a massive terrorist attack…and then all hell broke loose. Jerusalem, Seoul and all the rest. You can imagine the backlash the Americans were faced with by the rest of the world. So now they’re withdrawing their troops – it’s a complete withdrawal, and all they can do now is diminish into the West.”
“What about what happened here?”
“Palawan has been destroyed. These people here, you; we are perhaps 100 survivors.”
“Everything on the entire island?”
“Well we were lucky. El Nido up north came through just as we did, but that’s all. This storm raked Palawan from bottom to top. There really were very few survivors. Didn’t you see Puerto Princesa?”
“Puerto as you saw was completely destroyed. From what we know, there are two new superstorms building up as we speak, one in our neighborhood, a carbon copy of the last one, another over Europe. And, as I said, a whole series of them are billowing up off West Africa and spinning towards the Gulf of Mexico.”
Just the silence of the waves roaring in, one after another.
“Of course it’s unprecedented. Of course it is.”
Hugh held a hand over his eyes to block out the sun. “It seems like this is just the beginning,” he said.
“Yes, it will get worse, much worse before it improves. We already have to deal with no electricity and we’ve almost run out of diesel here. It’s becoming exceedingly difficult.”
Hugh looked at the old man, nodded, looked over his shoulder, nodding.
“The Earth,” the old man said, “seems to have passed some tipping point threshold because there’s been a massive increase in warming these last few days. You can feel it here too. I mean look: the forest is dying…”
Hugh turned slowly and saw gouges of desiccated yellow and brown in the forest that had been shielded from the storm by great cliff walls.
“Didn’t it rain here?” Hugh asked.
“Yes, heavily, but it’s dried up very quickly. You will see how hot it is in the next hour. Which reminds me, I have to hurry. Come on Peter.”
The old man and the boy moved quickly to a small bulging outcrop beside the sea. Hugh turned his back on them and walked along the shore. He noticed the water sometimes rushed up to the grassy verge of sand. He knew it wasn’t supposed to do that. And with each step his side ached.
Later that same day, when all were lethargic while the heat swelled over the beach like a quivering nuclear balloon, he emerged from the house. His back ached and the thought of sleep sickened him. The heat also did not touch him as much as it weakened them. He was as light as a reed, and eager to explore.
He walked barefoot over the gleaming wooden floor of the house. He walked by the radio room, where the old man was, as always, listening. The man, who had not caught a fish after all that day, gave him a small nod. The voices on the radio were strained; one man had a sore throat.
In the next room he found some of the girls. He moved between them to the bookshelf, and immediately found what he was looking for. He glanced down at them and saw that they were sleeping. He removed a Lonely Planet for the Philippines and turned to the last chapter. His finger traced the Underground River, not far from Sabang. He followed the Peninsula to El Nido. One of the figures stirred and so, silent as a shadow, he slipped out of the room with the valuable book.
He lay on the hammock reading it for a few moments, the hot wind breaking like shards of stinging glass through the withering fingers of the palm fronds.
Then, crossing his legs and sitting upright, hands on knees, he closed his eyes. For these moments he gathered strength and sought direction, while the forest sizzled around him.
The man had said to the group, over a lunch of fruit salad: “We can only survive if we work together.”
Was that a line he borrowed from a movie?
Hugh could not help but remember that another storm was bearing down on them. Without opening his eyes he knew that the aerial behind him, poking high above the roof of the house, was vulnerable, and if the winds blew differently this time, this house would also be destroyed. If 2 superstorms could follow each other within days, then one had to accept the island could no longer be inhabited. There were probably many places like that, and people would have to get used to that. The trick was to find those islands, even within continents that could be depended on for consistently benign weather. Sitting on the hammock, he believed the continent that would provide the best promise of resources had to be Africa. It was, after all, the only continent that spanned so much of both Hemispheres. And that meant somewhere between the tropics he might find viable pockets of life. And hadn’t he read that the Cape floral kingdom was the largest in the world because this sliver of land had been untouched by the last Ice Age? Surely that suggested long term viability?
In the quiet of the noonday heat, he made his plan. It was to return home, to Africa, by whatever road.
And while the old man and many here had already placed their faith in him as a potential leader, provider and protector, he knew he could do nothing to beat back the storm that had all but destroyed him, and would destroy them all if they remain here.
The man had spoken of soldiers in the jungle behind the cottages. Perhaps they could be persuaded to sell some of their fuel, and from there he could take a pump boat in the cool of the night to El Nido.
So he opened his eyes and walked with purpose to the forest. The soil was warm; the trees were wilting in the heat. Not far from the small circular water reservoir he saw the body. He moved cautiously closer and saw it was the girl who had tended him. She was naked, and it was obvious from her wounds that she had been raped, severely beaten and then shot. Her body was riddled with small black punctures made by bullets.
His hands lifted like wings. His ears pricked. His eyes shot left and right. Fearing they might be behind him, he darted quickly along the path in front of him, then dodged left and clung to the trunk of a tall tree. Perspiration poured down his forehead, his side ached, his forehead that had caught sunlight for a few moments, stung.
He heard low mumbling. He peeked around the tree and saw a small encampment. The soldiers were there, with two Jeepneys, and a few tents in the clearing. The men were consorting with one another, obviously drunk. They were all carrying weapons, and now convinced some key players to join them. They walked as a group past the big tree, towards the reservoir and the girl’s body. Carefully, and staying in the fringe of bush and undergrowth around the clearing, Hugh advanced. He ignored the weapons. He entered one of the Jeepneys from the rear and removed a big jerry can. He carried it 200 metres, put it down, and went back for a second one, and a third. Then he made repeat journeys to a position close to the three sidearmed Pumpboats that were moored close to the hammocks, in front of the hotel. He made sure the jerry cans were covered.
Then he climbed back into the hammock, panting and sweating profusely. He picked up his book and researched a possible route to El Nido.
No, the way to survive is on your own. Each man for himself. That was the game plan until further notice.
It took a long time for his blood to cool.