In this short story by Daryll Delgado, a devastating typhoon unearths an unexpected childhood memory.
Masasarop an baha, pero diri an baba.
The flood may be contained, but never the mouth.
“. . . it was pointless to search in the places
where people were instructed to look. Sense was only to be found in secrets.”
—John Berger, Here Is Where We Meet: A Story of Crossing Paths
“Less than 12 hours from a devastating impact with the central Philippines (Friday morning local time), Super typhoon Haiyan has strengthened to mind-boggling levels. It is now among the most intense storms to form on the planet in modern records.
3:00 p.m. update (EST): The Joint Typhoon Warning Center has increased its estimate of Haiyan’s maximum sustained winds to 195 mph with gusts to 235 mph. The storm is now within a few hours of landfall in the central Philippines at peak intensity as among the most powerful storms witnessed anywhere in modern times. Widespread destruction, unfortunately, seems inevitable.
9:45 p.m. update (EST): Haiyan made landfall in the central Philippines earlier this evening (early morning in the Philippines). With estimated maximum sustained winds of 195 mph, it is thought to be the strongest storm to ever make landfall anywhere in the world in modern records.”
Jason Samenow and Brian McNoldy. “Super typhoon Haiyan strikes Philippines, among strongest storms ever.” The Washington Post. November 7, 2013.
I could almost smell it as soon as I saw it—the rotting, the decay. Dunot, stress on the second syllable. The local word came to me as the plane angled and I had a better view of the festering city, prostrate on the island’s narrow tip. The once-green island looked like an enormous animal carcass, jutting out from the sea.
The plane’s position shifted, and we lost sight of the island. All of a sudden there was nothing but intense blue water, reflecting back cloudless skies and, almost imperceptibly, our military plane wavering in the ripples like a black fly. For a while it felt like we were going to make a water landing, and then the plane righted itself before tilting toward land. As the island came into clearer view, I couldn’t help overlaying it with digital images of the storm repeatedly flashed across the TV screen: blue-green-yellow-red swirls around a black dot of an eye. A perfect storm, they say, and the tiny city right in the eye of it.
Since I started monitoring the news, I had also felt a pulsating sensation on my own eyes, even when I closed them. Not that I closed them much, operating on an average of two hours of sleep per day for the last six days. But, awake or asleep, colors continued to burst under my eyelids, a rather nauseating experience comparable to a bad trip I once had after ingesting cheap synthetic stuff. Meanwhile, to the extent that I could see, ground zero, as they’ve been calling the city, looked drained of color entirely.
“Unrecognizable, this is completely unrecognizable to me.” I heard someone behind me gasp, before mumbling something else I couldn’t make out.
“This used to be such a beautiful city . . .” someone else said.
I remembered one of the commentaries I read only that morning: It was as though the fantasy lid on the province, famed for being the hometown of the other half of the conjugal dictatorship, had finally been blown off and filthy vapors inevitably released.
Decayed, dilapidated, rotten. Dunot. There’s this joke my dad always tells (used to tell) about the word dunot. Of course, it just has to be a Johnny Pusong joke.
Johnny Pusong was driving his ramshackle, rickety jeepney in the downtown area of Tacloban one afternoon. He wanted to make a left turn to P. Gomez Street to get to Highway Supermart. He hesitated when he saw a sign in the middle of the road.
He struggled to read the words: “Do, doo, not? Ah! Du, du-not. Du-not. En, en, en-ter. Enter! Du-not. Enter. Dunot enter!” He smiled, pleased with himself, when he finally got it.
He stepped down from his dilapidated jeepney, walked over to the road sign, and pushed it to the side. He returned to his car, drove past the sign, and then got out again to return the sign to its original place.
A traffic officer saw Johnny just as he was boarding his jeepney. The officer blew his whistle furiously. He approached Johnny and slammed his fist against the windshield of Johnny’s old jeepney.
Johnny started. “Ha? Kay ano? Sorry, sorry ser. May naigo? I hit something?”
The officer pointed to the sign. “Can’t you see? There’s a big sign: Do. Not. Enter! Are you blind, dumb, or something?”
Johnny scratched his head. “Aw, kay amo balit, that’s why I entered, ser, because, because—”
“Ano, what? Speak up!”
“Uhm, kay kuan, because sign says du-du-not enter. Dunot enter. Aw, if dunot can enter, puede ako! I can enter! My car, see, is very dunot . . .”
Not really a good time for jokes. And this one was particularly bad, some would even say elitist. I hadn’t heard it in a long time. Used to make my sister, Alice, and me laugh so hard each time we heard it. Especially when Dad did Johnny, and his assistant, his sidekick, Paterno (also known as Pat, Pats, Pater, Patern, Terno, but Mano Pater or Mano Pat to me and Alice), played the role of the police. So corny. So bad. Used to make Mom so mad. Still makes me laugh.
I’ve never been able to retell the joke successfully to non-Waray friends though. The pun doesn’t translate well. But, Dad, a modestly successful lawyer and former editor of a law school journal, is (was) most proud of it. He claims (claimed) that it won first prize in a local radio contest of the best Johnny Pusong jokes. He also sometimes sent his siday—short, bawdy poems in Waray—and combined Alice’s, my, and Mom’s names for his pseudonym, Alicia Anna Magdalena Suarez, just to embarrass us. He would turn the radio to full volume in the morning, when he knew an entry of his would be read, and he’d laugh heartily over his own jokes, tears spilling from his baggy brown eyes. You wouldn’t ever hear (have heard) him bragging about difficult cases won, or articles published, but he always finds (found) an opportunity to tell his prize-winning jokes.
Verb tenses, Ann. I thought I heard my sister reprimanding me, reorienting me to reality. As is her role, as her professional training dictates.
I found myself apologizing to sister-in-my-head-Alice. Sorry, sorry. I know. It should be simple: He is gone. He has left. But he still is. Is him. Is Dad. Is here. Anyway, this is not about him—
Sister-in-my-head-Alice replied, softening. Well, it WAS Dad who taught us the rules, when we were very young, we weren’t even in school. So this IS about Dad, WILL always BE about him—
OK. Stop right there, Als. I can see what you’re doing here, and it’s annoying, very condescending. I shook my head at her, only half-smiling.
One of the pilots also shook his head, looked at me.
“I know. Grabe, ano? Just look at that. They weren’t exaggerating when they said it looks like a nuclear bomb was dropped over the island. Parang war zone ito—”
“What? Ah, yes, I mean, no, no, they weren’t exaggerating at all, no space for exaggeration there—”
“Whoa, just look at that.”
“I know. Dunot.”
“Waray term for festering, rotten, decayed. No, not do-not. Dunot. Stress on the second syllable, unless you’re making a joke—”
“A what? What’s that in Tagalog?”
The pilot tried out the word, shaking his head at the scene before him. “Dunot.”
The word sounded harsh to my Waray ears, and too much like kunot, same stress, second syllable: a violent twisting, a forceful crushing. Exactly how it felt in my stomach, as I saw more of the city. Leveled, stripped of any trace of vegetation. Brown and gray, and soggy in some parts, dry and flat in others. The wreckage that outlined the coast reminded me of miniature model houses I once saw angrily trampled on by a kid throwing a massive tantrum. Might the kid in question have been me, and the wreckage Alice’s school project? Could be. The point is, in a tantrum, nothing, no one, is spared. Just like what this angry typhoon did. It made sure not to leave any room for exaggeration indeed.
I went on standing between the two pilots and tried to locate Johnny Pusong’s Highway Supermart and other places I remembered frequenting as a child. I thought I saw the top of the neoclassical Provincial Capitol Building, once the country’s seat of government for a very brief period after The War. I was positive I identified the playground, Plaza Libertad, near the Capitol, and what looked like the fallen statues of the giant Snow White and some of her outsized dwarves. I was instructed to return to my seat as the USAF C-130 Hercules transport plane made another half-round turn, before it started to descend further, and just before I could get a chance to see if our old house near the airport had withstood the storm. Just as well, it was hard to make sense of the landscape anyway. Familiar structures no longer stood. And even if the house survived, what then? It had ceased to be ours, it had ceased to even be a house, a long time ago.
Malamrag. Masilaw. More words came to me. I took out my steno pad and wrote them quickly under “Dunot” as the plane finally landed and came to a stop. Waray for bright, dazzling, I wrote. No trees, no shade. Cloudless. I took notes rapidly, as I continued to see more. Breaking down the images into bullet points seemed a good way of keeping pinned to the official task at hand, helped to make sense of the scene that greeted us as the massive door of the plane was pulled down.
Airport terminal—washed out.
Makeshift booths for arrival, departure, aid agencies, media, celebrities.
Long lines. Many, many women and children. Disheveled, distraught.
Where are all the men?
Buringon—from the root word buring, dirt, mud.
Mud, dirt, buring, everywhere.
On their unshod feet. On their clothes. On hands clasping steel gates.
On their faces. On their matted hair.
Signs of shock?
Signs of hunger?
Enlarged pupils, bloodshot eyes. Catatonia. Anxiousness. Agitation.
Crowd control. Food supplies. Ammunition boxes. Military trucks.
American military personnel. UN Refugee Agency. Australian troops. Malaysian medics. ICRC, UNICEF, WHO, USAID, MSF, WFP, PLAN, Save the Children. (Yes, please.)
Coconut trees, palm fronds gone. Decapitated.
Other trees upturned. Roots in the air.
Brown and gray. Rot and mud.
This smell. (My god. I know this smell.)
From Remains. © 2019 by Daryll Delgado. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
Johnny Pusong is a character in Eastern Visayas comic folklore noteworthy for his impertinence, impudence, and silliness. The Johnny Pusong stories are part of an oral tradition, so there is no single author. They were popularized by a local AM radio station in Tacloban, which devoted two segments, one in the morning and another in the evening, to Johnny Pusong jokes. Locals submit Johnny Pusong stories to the program and the top three stories for the day are awarded prizes such as one hundred pesos, a pack of cookies, or a meal in a local eatery.