The sun rose and immediately began to burn through the forest. He had smelt the forest in Manila, here there was no steam, just a crusty smell. When you walked instead of the lushness of leaves brushing against each other, twigs snapped, and withered leaves begged for relief. Higher up, they sometimes wandered into lush sections. Here the frogs croaked, and birds flashed in dappled light. After two hours on the monkey trail, hiking through the St Paul Subterranean National Park, they arrived at the modest gray mouth of a mountain, and watched clear fluorescent blue water flowing out and sparkling in the sun. While the old man removed his shoes to rub tired feet, the girls tore off their shirts and dived into the water. They squealed, splashing the men, shouting, shrieking over and over: “It’s as warm as a bath.”
Hugh sat at a picnic table, reading the description of the various animals. These boards were usually constructed at pristine sites all over the world. He wondered if other places too were deserted and empty, even the animals it seemed, somewhere else if not dead.
Lingering in his mind was a strange dream that had left him also strangely aroused. He’d been unable to put his finger on it when Stella, with her brown eyes and brown hair, a girl of thirteen or fourteen, took his hand. “Come,” she said, wearing a simultaneously shy and cheeky smile. “Come and swim.”
He was surprised just how warm the water was. It was almost hot. It didn’t make sense. It was supposed to be flowing from within the mountain wasn’t it?
He mentioned this to the old man, who in six words broke the fragile film of structure Hugh had managed to blow out against the wind of the new world.
“Part of the mountain has collapsed.”
The bubbled popped.
“How can a mountain collapse?” Hugh asked, a girl climbing on his shoulder.
“Well it’s hollow on the inside, and we’ve had massive amounts of rain…God knows it must have been pounded inside and outside.”
“So the water is warm…why?”
“Perhaps somewhere upstream there’s a sort of cauldron where the water is temporarily held back and warmed.”
Hugh stood up suddenly and the girl jumped making a big splash. Hugh nodded quietly.
“Which is which,” he said, pointing to two girls with short, pixie black hair and pointy ears and noses.
“I can never tell. Aaargh. I’m going to sit down,” the old man said, wading stiffly up the embankment to the wooden benches.
Hugh lay on his back, noticing swarms of mosquitoes, watching swifts darting in and out of the mouth, in pursuit of insects. He wondered whether some clouds of insects, that sometimes grew so dark they blocked his view of background scenery. He wondered if that was normal. Lately he wasn’t sure whether anything was normal.
* * *
Inside the cave it was spooky. Stella shared his canoe and sat upfront with a paddle, while Hugh paddled and steered from the rear. The twins were behind them, struggling to row in a straight line. They couldn’t make out much as they had run out of torch batteries in the last week, and there had been no electricity at the house to charge cellphones or anything else.
“Where are the others,” Hugh said, softly.
“Right behind,” Stella murmured, her head right back against his chest, her eyes looking straight up at him.
“No, the other two.”
“Uh…probably smooching somewhere.”
And just then, in the gloom, they floated quietly on the dark warm water, towards the glistening rock where the two nymphs lay, bikini tops at their feet, silky limbs and hair in the dimness.
The twins boat bumped into them from behind, and the cave echoed with shrieks. Hugh said in a warm, golden voice, “Shall we go girls?”
Paddling back Stella spoke while paddling, so he could not see her face. “Are you going to tell someone?”
“Who would I tell? What would I tell,” Hugh said.
Yet inside his heart was breaking. In a very short space of time he felt he had grown very fond of this small subunit of the Sabang group. He was leaving them to take care of number one, and more particularly, because he firmly believed remaining in Sabang was a terminal decision.
This feeling grew as they walked back. They pressed soft melons against their faces, the half rotten orange flesh soft and incredibly sweet. They passed around a sticky pip, biting the fibers that still clung to it, and trying to maneuver melon string stuck between teeth with their tongues.
Quite high up on the jungle trail they stopped. Stella pulled at Hugh’s hand and pointed. They could see Michael walking, limping painfully below them on the monkey trail. It was another irony, that the girls had rudely chosen to go with him on this harder route, a route he chose so that he could walk alone, and be alone with his thoughts.
“C’mon,” Stella said. Hugh sank onto his haunches, waving away a small mist of mosquitoes. “You guys go on ahead, I just want to be alone for a little bit. Go on.”
The twins and the other two solemnly walked on, taking small careful steps with their small legs.
Stella stayed with him.
“Take me with you, when you go.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Please take me with you.”
“What about the people here that love you?”
“Michael? He’s my step grandfather.”
“What on earth is that?”
“He’s not my real grandfather, he married my grandmother after my real grandfather died.”
“You’re here with him?”
“Just promise me you’ll take me with you?”
“I um…I can’t do that…Stella…I can’t.”
“Please….promise me…” A tear flowed over her cheek.
Hugh stood up.
“We are not having this conversation. You don’t even know me.”
And with that he turned and walked back along the path they had taken. She watched him for a long time, and then finally, turned and followed the others.
Hugh followed the jungle trail until the junction with the monkey trail, walked along it for a while, then left it altogether and walked onto a small protected cove. He saw rock rising up on both sides, the tired forest hanging, higher up it was lush and busy with life.
The beach was almost entirely underwater, something else that seemed unusual. What’s more there were strange creatures washed up, and many of them. He saw a dolphin, an octopus, and some very odd creatures that looked like they belonged in the deep, where the light of the sun never reached. They were monsters from a subterranean world, washed up, their lifeless fins gently touching his angles as the waves pushed at him.
It was this constant drama, this build up of frustration that made him tear off his clothes and walk into the water. It was crystal clear. He mistook a tussock of seaweed for another body from the deep, apparently also being washed ashore. He could feel the pressure in him manifesting in an erection. He wasn’t sure what it was…was it all this, the island, this life, the people around him…all fusing with the delirious dream…where sex and death are one and the same. Perhaps we die because we have sex, or because we have sex, we die. But he tugged at himself in the salty water, pinching eyes closed to concentrate, then taking a deep painful breath, and looking wildly at what was left of the forest. He aligned himself with his pleasure and his pain, and felt the ocean within him bulging. His bulging biceps gleamed in the stinging sun. His toes gripped the white sand, his left hand shielded the light from his eyes…the children were far away, and the ocean itself did not cease, when the man standing waist deep pumped his semen into the churning froth. Then he walked slowly up the beach, gathered up his clothes, and went along the shore to the faraway boats under the dying trees.