Thursday, July 12, 2007
The Holiday (continued)
For two days and nights a violent ballet of sheer atmospheric power played out above their heads. Sometimes the sound was so fierce it was a near shriek, like the hysterical roar of air through the ailerons of a landing 747. The noise occasionally disturbed the two sleepers in their matchbox cabin. Once a swell pushed under the cabins around them, shovelling the cabins effortlessly like a few Styrofoam blocks. The spit of the worst breakers reached them through the floorboards of their cabin, which was set further back, leaving a soapy residue behind.
When Stella visited the bathroom she thought the bubbles were from Hugh having taken a shower, but Hugh said he hadn’t; and he said the lights and water were gone.
She pressed her finger on a nearby switch. Nothing.
She turned a tap. Not a drop of water.
She went outside and was nearly picked up and thrown off the balcony. Hugh jumped out of bed and stood at her back. Both felt the wind and rain stinging their faces. It was midmorning, but the world was darkened by the ferocity of the storm.
He looked at her face. She had her tongue out, drinking water from the monsoon. He did the same until they went inside, laughing at each other.
They spent time building small structures with the remaining matchsticks and its container. He woke up at one point to find her sketching his face using a small stubby pencil and a page from the bedside bible. She asked him to wait a few minutes until she was done, then offered it to him. He sat up on an elbow: quite a good likeness too.
They talked a great deal. She spoke about surfing, and sailing, and going to an international school in Singapore. She mentioned her step grandfather’s shipping interests; said he had a small fleet of oil tankers.
“We could do with one now,” Hugh said, folding his hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling where water had started to drip.
“And if you had one, where would you go?”
“Africa. Well, South Africa really.”
She asked him about his country, firing question after question.. He gave up the information in disciplined clips.
“I have a feeling the weather is a bit more settled down there than it is here. But it may be worse in other ways.”
“Well,” he sighed, “it might be incredibly hot down there, and incredibly dry.”
“Well, we could just find a nice mountain stream high up somewhere, and live there.”
“In the mountains? Well I suppose you could always retro fit a surfboard into a snowboard or something,” he mused, eyes closed.
“When this storm clears, can we go and look for a surfboard?”
“Sure,” he said lazily, humouring her.
She punched him.
“Sure,” he said, eyes open this time, rubbing the ball of his shoulder. “Quit punching me.”
“Well then quit treating me like a little girl.”
“You are a little girl.”
She punched him again and now he pulled her closer and tickled her in her ribs.
She spoke about flying with her step grandfather, and how he had treated her with incredible cruelty, and at the same time, like a princess.
All through the second night, endless swathes of purple cloud impregnated with rain launched over the walls of the castle like fortress that guarded El Nido. The swirling carpet broiled and shrieked, but most of its venom smashed furiously into the ocean in front of the seaside village.
On the third day a single bird sang, but no bird of its species answered. It called, dancing in flight to another perch it thought it remembered, and called again. No answer.
Hugh arrived at the door, glanced at the bird, then saw Stella inside, still sleeping.
“How can you sleep in this heat?” he asked.
“What time is it?”
“Day time. Come, I’ve brought us some water, and a bag of fruit.”
He put a yellow plastic bucket on a small table, and tossed an avocado at her.
An hour later they were walking down the sun drenched streets. A few individuals, all natives, made brief appearances. Either to hang up washing, or to sweep mud out of their homes.
The shops were empty, except one.
A blonde, curly haired woman wearing an XXL red shirt with a white cross and small Kunstler script with the word SWITZERLAND on it, was unpacking small boxes onto a glass cabinet when they stepped inside. A bell tinkled.
“Are you open for business?”
The woman didn’t look up.
“Hello, excuse me?” Stella said, bounding up to her, her hands slapping down on the glass.
From her face she seemed intoxicated with something. Her nose was red, her eyes glazed.
Hugh looked at the boxes in her hands. She was opening them up, examining each compass.
“Got,” she said. “Oh my Got.” A quivering hand covered her mouth, and her eyes suddenly overflowed with worry.
“What is it?” Stella asked, looking up at Hugh.
“The compasses are all pointing away from ze true nort. They shoot be pointing dat way,” and she quickly stabbed a finger at the door behind them.
Hugh opened a box, and removed the compass: the needle was pointing south.
“What does that mean?” Stella said, her eyes swivelling from the one adult to the other.
“I don’t know,” Hugh said. He glanced quickly at the woman, and cupped the back of Stella’s soft head in his hand.
“Your airplane iss waiting.”
“I know,” Stella answered. She lifted her chin, took Hugh’s hand and pulled him deeper into the shop.
It was while they were fingering t-shirts that they heard her step out.
“Are you the owner?” Hugh asked.
After a moment her face re-appeared at the door. “No. Ze owner hass gone to Zingapore. Most people haf.”
“Well, we’ve like to get something here. Although I’m not sure how to pay for it.”
“Take vhat you vant.”
“Haven’t you heard? Money doezn’t have any value nhow. Seems evzyvere people are juss looking for ze food and shelter. Zee you,” and she walked away.
The man and the child watched her go, then looked at each other, eyebrows suspended in disbelief.
Then they slowly turned their attention to what was in the store. Hugh selected a few scarlet bandanas, sun protection cream, a sunhat, and a white t-shirt that said: Paradise is Palawan. Stella found a ripoff Oakley shirt, and screamed when she found a surfboard behind wetsuits hanging in the corner.
“You can have whatever you want,” Hugh said, pulling a small red backpack from a high shelf, “but you have to carry it.”
On his way out he stopped, turned and leaned over the glass cabinet. He fished out a pair of goggles, a small magnifying glass, a swiss army knife, and finally one of the compasses lying on the glass counter. He stuffed these into the backpack, along with two small towels. He punched the old fashioned metal till, and the draw popped out with a KRIInnnG.
Stella emerged from the store much later, finding him sitting on the steps, zipping up the bulding backpack.
“Let’s go?” she said,
“Let’s go. Got everything you want?”
She also had a small backpack, and hoised the surfboard under her arm and grinned at him. They walked quietly through the muddy streets. The sun rained arrows on them, burning their faces red. At one point she lifted the surfboard over her head, to block out the sun,
“Let’s walk down this street,” Hugh whispered. The surfboard turned and the girl under it had fallen behind slightly, but still followed him. He waited for her, then walked on, at a slower pace. They walked by a building that was attached to a church, and noticed that inside it was packed with the local population. Someone was preaching to them, and as they walked quietly by, they started to sing a hymn of praise.
“Do you think God will help them?” Hugh asked.
“God only helps those who helps themselves,” Stella replied, without missing a beat.
“I don’t know about you, my darling, but I think that’s another way of saying we are on our own.”
“Or that we are the hands of God.”
“God is made in the image of man, which is really the mind of man. It's a construct. I mean think about it Stella: Does God exist only because people believe in him, or is it the other way around?"
She had to think about that for a moment. She wasn’t sure what he was getting at, or if she agreed with what she thought he meant.
From under the surfboard she frowned, then lifted the long tip so she could make eye contact: “You mean, God is us?”
“And everything besides us.”
“So God is not a person?”
He smiled at the way she said that.
“The God most people believe in, like the people back there, is definitely a person. A super person. A super parent. Wouldn’t that be nice? Someone to look after us when our real parents can’t anymore.”
“It would,” she said, matter of factly.
“But think about it, if God is a person, and a person is God, then anyone can be God.”
“So what you’re saying is you are God?”
“Not The God, just A God,” he grinned.
The singing continued behind them.
“So what will it be today: surf or ski. Your wish young lady is my command.”
“Surfing for sure. It’s such a gorgeous day, we can’t let it go to waste.”
“So be it.”
And within the hour they were out in the sparkling bay, the colourful surfboard tethered by a nylon rope to the pumpboat, bobbing in the rough water but Stella having a ball hanging on to it..
“I should have taken fishing tackle from the shop,” Hugh murmured to himself. But then he couldn’t remember seeing any rods.
He lifted one of the Jerry cans. It was still half full. Good.
They went between tall cathedrals of dramatic cliffs towering out of the water. It was unbeatable scenery, especially beautiful when the towering cliffs were draped in green foliage, but the vegetation on other islands was sometimes entirely absent, or burnt, or withered and brown.
They found a small strand on a nearby island and pulled the boat ashore. Stella tore off her sopping wet t-shirt, a bright orange and pink bikini caught the sun, and ran off with her surfboard. Hugh watched her for a moment, and then looked around her. There were no waves. While she paddled, Hugh snorkelled in the shallow water. He was a powerful swimmer, and did not need fins to move quickly through the water. The underwater scenery delighted Hugh. The corals were gorgeous, forests of life far more intact than those above the water. Hugh swam with his shirt on to save his skin from the burning sun.
“Hey, I found Nemo!” Hugh sputtered at one point.
He waved her over, handed her the goggles and pointed. She put her head in the water, and legs kicked a few times to help her on her way. Hugh wiped the salty drops she’d inadvertently kicked into his eyes. The saltwater was still stinging them slightly when surfaced soon after.
“Hey, you’re right. Cheeky little bugger.” She went down again and the orange and black banded fish faced off against the goggled human, it’s small gills bulging with intensity.
She came up chuckling.
On the beach, hours later, they sank onto the sand, Stella saying, “Can we do this again tomorrow?”
“All right!” She waved her arms excitedly at the jagged cliffs and faroff beaches of the Bacuit Archipelago. “Wow,” she crooned, “we have the whole world to ourselves.”
And Hugh could not help looking at the world around them and thinking of the world as healed and restored once more. How could it not be with the sun shining down upon them, where they were able to explore these beautiful natural wonders as people had been for ages. But then he was reminded of the compasses, the dead birds, and of course the cities that had been nuked. The world would never be the same again. Of course it couldn’t. Perhaps it would begin to sink in if he could just see one of those razed cities for himself.
But even with these depressing insights, Hugh he felt himself inspired by his beautiful surroundings, and slipping back into the hypnosis that everything was all right. Stella was chattering about Bali and waves. He gave Stella’s cheek a small pinch, saying nothing to dampen Stella’s high spirits.
From there they tossed their backpacks into the boat and cruised around Miniloc Island. This time Stella lay tummy down on the prow of the boat, watching the keel split the turquoise water, her knees anchoring her in the deeper sections of the boat. High was faced with the bright flowers of her bright bikini bottom. He glanced at her narrow midriff, her strong ankles, feet wedged against the side of the boat. He felt a strong fondness for her, and wished he had known her, or been her friend as a much younger man. A girl who surfed!
His thoughts turned suddenly to the wretched old man, her step grandfather, that had hiked with them that day to the underground river. He wondered what had become of that community. Had they survived the storm? And what about the bird flu, and the changing of the magnetic fields, and other things they did not yet know about. Why had he not asked the woman in the shop about the war? It was a crazy oversight, to have neglected to ask more questions. At the very least whether New York and London were still in the world.
“Put on a t-shirt Stella, you’re going to burn.”
He was surprised that she turned, moved halfway along the boat, pulled it on and then returned to her position. She was humming.
After two minutes: “Let’s go for one last swim, before we go back. Pleeeeeeaaaaase.”
They made their way around a few small islands, then headed for a sliver of white sand.
“Last one in is a stinky dead fish,” she said, getting reading to jump out the boat. He dived in, letting the boat run itself ashore. The engine bit into beach sand and Stella had to backtrack and cut the motor.
“You’re still the stinky dead fish,” she said, pulling off her shirt.
“What’s that you said?”
“You’re still AAAAAAAiiiiiiiiiEEEEEE.”
He ran after her, carrying light gray beach mud in one hand.
He tossed the mud and it socked into the small of her back, the sloshy sound of impact made Hugh snort with amusement. Now she ran after him, and the game turned into pushing dirt down the other person’s swimming trunks. He moved through the thigh deep water, and as he lifted an arm to throw mud against her waist, she involuntarily kicked, so that her knee connected with his ear, hitting it squarely, squirting a jet of water that instantly burst his eardrum. Hugh experienced a loud rubbery squeak, and a strange pain that made him swallow, and stretch his jaw. He stood up, while she danced around him, and touched his ear. He moved his finger against the folds of his ear, checking to see if he could still hear.
“You’re not fooling me….you’re not fooling me…”
He stood for a few minutes, put a finger in his mouth and examined the spit. It was pink with blood.
He showed her. She gave an awkward shrug, her smile fading.
“Let’s go back,” he said, turning to the boat.
“I’m sorry, I-.”
“It’s okay, it’s not your fault.” He didn’t smile at her.
“Are you alright?” she said, pulling at the hand that was pressed against his ear. “Let me see.”
He allowed her to pull his hand down. She stood on her toes, and at first could not see anything. Then she saw a small red snake flow over the fold of his ear, and curl in a thin red line down his sun burned neck.