I breathe the smell of the river even before I see it.

It’s not the same smell that filled my nostrils five years back. Its once fresh smell has given way to the stench of the destruction left by the four storms only a month ago.

As I make my way toward the river, kicking some rocks out of the way, I remember when the river was still clean and clear. When I could still see the rocks at the bottom of the riverbed, and, with friends, I would swim from bank to bank, feeling the warm rays of the sun on my young skin.

I remember I used to collect rocks to scrub my body with during baths. I would walk home carrying these rocks in my pockets to let my father sort out the smooth from the rough ones. Most of the time he would tell me to throw all of them back in the river because we had too many already.

But it isn’t like that now, and I’m not here to play or collect rocks anymore. The storms have erased all traces of this once majestic river. The sun has not showed up in the gray sky for days. The river is not crystal-clear. It is as if it had been replaced by an enormous puddle of mud. Even the few trees growing on this side of the river are nowhere to be seen. The rocks are mossy and slippery.

And yet it is the same river, and the old boatman is still here, transporting people from bank to bank. The sun-bronzed Mang Nilo, who seems to have aged more than 20 years since I last saw him, looks at me with curiosity and wonder under his wide-brimmed hat. He does not recognize me.

I was a skinny girl of 22 the last time he saw me. I had dark skin, and a smile always adorned my face. But now, five years later, I cannot even offer a smile or a simple greeting to Mang Nilo, who diligently steers his boat. He docks his sturdy boat on the bank, offering his rough hand to help me with my luggage.

I do not bother introducing myself to him; surely he will remember me in the next few days. Now is not the time for it. There are more important things to think about.

Good investigation key to successful prosecution, American lawyer stresses

I step into his boat, and I can’t help noticing that it’s new. I ask him, “Mang Nilo, what happened to your old boat?”

Startled that I know his name, he replies, “Got destroyed by Violeta.” He opens his mouth again and quickly snaps it shut. I think he is about to ask me who I am, but seeing the wistful look on my face, he may have decided to simply remain silent.

I saw the CNN report on those four storms. I was in the States at that time, watching the news at six in the evening before going to work in the hospital as a health aide. I was shocked to see fellow Filipinos cramped in evacuation centers, trying to flee from the wrath of the first storm, Unding. And as if it was not enough, the storm Violeta made its grand entrance afterwards. Worse than the first one, it killed thousands in just a short span of time. Some drowned in floods and overflowing dams, while water-borne diseases ravaged some more, I heard. Relief operations were slow because of the destroyed bridges. Some remote areas could only be reached by air, and before volunteers in helicopters could save them, most of them had already died. But one after the other, the storms came, lashing their fury for reasons only nature knows. The other two storms, Winnie and Yoyong, though less powerful than Violeta, were still strong enough to bury a hundred more in muddy graves.

I had called grandma then, asking if she was okay, and advising her to evacuate the house immediately because the river might overflow. But grandma said no, she would not leave the old house. She said she’d be all right, although she had no one to look after her. “The house is sturdy, Jodie. I’ll be fine here, I promise. So don’t you worry.”

“I just don’t want anything to happen to you, lola,” I told her. I wanted so badly to be with her again that time, but traveling from the States back to the Philippines is not quite easy. And I trusted her to be fine, as she said she would be. And Lola Dolores had always kept promises.

I watch Mang Nilo submerge his navigating rod into the bottom of the muddy river.

Cancer grills in grilled meats

Back when I was a kid, I would cup the water in my hands, feeling it slide down to my elbows as it slowly escaped my fingers. I don’t dare do that today. I merely watch the boatman’s tall bamboo stick stir the dirty water. But I don’t recall the river being deep; or is it just now, because of the incessant rains?

The clouds become darker and darker by the minute. We reach the other side of the river safely, and I hand the boatman twenty pesos for his services. A little too much, but the man badly needs it. He thanks me timidly and helps me unload my bags from the boat. From here I can see the roof of my grandma’s house.

Not a green thing can be seen as I walk by the once lively cornfields. The last time I was here, the crops were ready for harvest. Green and yellow everywhere I looked. Now, even though it’s high noon, the sun is nowhere to be seen, and the dark clouds are threatening to release their burden. It actually seems like I haven’t seen the sun shining brightly ever since I came back.

A drizzle starts when I reach my grandmother’s house, which ironically looks only a little marred by the storms. Nevertheless, it is still the same old sturdy gray house that I have always known, with a big window at the top floor. From there, one can see the river, once so beautiful and peaceful. I wonder if I’ll ever see the river like that again.

From inside the house, yellow lights twinkle on the glass windows of the sala and the fragrance of flowers hangs in the air, tinged, however with the smell of floodwater.

But I have never really liked flowers. They remind me of my parents, who died in a car accident when I was five, leaving me to live with Lola Dolores. They remind me of the burials, when I dropped two white roses into their graves as their coffins were slowly lowered.

As I enter the old house, I notice the same pictures still hanging on the wall–mostly pictures of grandpa and my dad, and a small framed picture of me, standing on the old wooden table at the center of the living room. I look pretty in that picture, I think, with my shoulder-length black hair and dark eyes. Then there’s also our family picture, where I am only three years old and my mom and dad are still alive. The sofa set made of bamboo, the antique lamp that my grandma bought from a neighbor, the grandfather clock that has been here for as long as I can remember, and the black Bible she loved to read every morning–all of these are still here, but they look older, casualties of the river’s wrath.

Martial law again?

My lola isn’t here to welcome her only grandchild. She isn’t here to say, “My dear, just tell me what you want to eat and I’ll cook it for you.” She isn’t here to narrate stories of how she and grandpa met, how they fell in love, and how grandpa had died two years before I was born. Her stories made me laugh and cry at the same time. She isn’t here with me to look out of the topmost window and watch the river; one last look before we would drift into our dreams, side by side, her arms around me.

Instead, people are gathered inside the house, eating and talking in hushed voices. Some look up at me as I pass by. They have been waiting for me. Word of my coming had already spread. Jodie, the only grandchild of Dolores, is coming home for the funeral.

Some old women try to talk to me, to take me out of my reverie as I pass in their midst. I recognize most of them, but I do not heed their consoling calls. I want to see my lola right away.

I walk toward the smooth, white coffin and look down at her serene face. The lines on her face are more numerous now, but the embalmer had tried to conceal them with a thick mask of make-up. Her shriveled hands are holding the same rosary she always used. She seems to be sleeping peacefully, maybe even dreaming, of the days when the little town of Sta. Ana had been bursting with life, before the four storms had upset the river, drowning almost half of the town’s population, one of them she, the only family that I have.


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