Nick Joaquin had the look of a dissolute emperor and the discipline of a monk. He lived, worked, and died in the city of his birth. He loved San Miguel beer, walking around Manila, and attending Mass. He spoke Tagalog, Spanish, and English, plus kanto-boy Tagalog and street Englishes. His style has a term: Joaquinesque. His command of voice, language, and form is absolute. Some of his sentences are like labyrinths that if you pulled a string through, you get this architectonic surety, a marvel. As a writer, I am always falling in love with him again. I study his sentences. Puns lurk in his precision. His favorite is “going for lost”: inside the phrase is Tagalog, nagwawala, meaning both to lose and to go nuts. He likes gerundizing (Tagalog is verb based) and history puns. For Filipinos, Joaquin is sui generis. Almost maddeningly Manileiio, subversively religious, pitch-perfectly bourgeois, preternaturally feminist, historically voracious, Joaquin’s work has a fatality–it simply is.
I read him when I was a child in Leyte. MacArthur had landed on my island in 1944; and since May 1, 1898, when Spain’s ships fell to American cannons in Manila Bay, the Philippines–condemned on that May Day to English–has made art in English from seeds of violence. Continue reading
Three nights after I left the Arctic Storm, I heard my name as I passed the Salty Dawg. I looked back. A small, thin man hurried after me. His walk had something hopeful, almost jaunty, in it, but his face looked tired under its graying stubble.
“Buy you a drink and we’ll talk about a job,” he called. The skipper of the Arctic Storm came out behind him, shouting, “Damn you, Jay, you’re stealing my deckhand. You’re gonna work for me, aren’t you, sweetheart?”
I let myself be herded inside, strangely elated at the thought of fishing again.
Hell is truth seen too late.
— Thomas Hobbes
He knew they were doomed as any couple in the history of rotten love. He’d known it long before, actually, and yet he’d driven out here anyway, to this land of barbequed ribs and noxious air, and magicians and cretins and drunks.
The same imbecilic logic of old had held for them, as well: if they ran fast enough, they figured, if they put distance enough between them and their filth, they might still have a chance at life.
But though they’d only dragged their filth along, it wasn’t till the moment he appeared before her in his tee shirt stained with gravy and cheese, his face painted blue and teeth all black—a 240-pound fiend covered in tattoos—that the extent of their imbecility had obtained in full, the repulsion in her eyes, had he somehow doubted, its awful confirmation.
She was in the bathroom, turning herself into a “sexy gothic Martian.”
When I first fell into the water, although I was perfectly aware that this was all really happening, it felt as though I was still stuck inside a dream. I’m walking along the road, lifting my feet with that sluggishness found in dreams, that heaviness caused by the water sloshing inside my rain boots. Neither sadness, fear, nor despair, but gravity, endless and immense, has taken hold of me. I’m wandering between the houses, their numbers painted on white signs. I must be lost. It seemed I’d experienced brutal acts but could no longer remember them. No, I was simply struck by the sense of memory’s intangibility, torn between struggling to recall certain events as something concrete, and the instinct to leave them safely in the nebulous past. But such dreams were nothing new for me, and I didn’t need to fight against the confusion; to a certain extent I actually enjoyed it. Even as the surface of the water broke my fall, I wasn’t afraid. I saw pots of limp geraniums on a windowsill, the white drapes drawn, glass dolls with scarily large pupils, and green Christmas candles. I waved. As firecrackers snapped in the middle of the road, a yellow tram went by. Benny ran barking along the water’s edge, where early bluebells bloomed between patches of unmelted snow. Nothing’s the matter, Benny. This is only a dream. But no sound emerged from my throat. Benny was barking even louder. He ran into the wood that grew by the water, gradually speeding up so that in the end he was nothing but a blurry white ball, revolving with the world’s axis as its center. What could have happened to upset him? I wanted to comfort him. My love, everything’s alright. Just wait there and I’ll come right back. There’s a good boy, my love. But Benny couldn’t hear me and streaked away, passing beyond my sight. Then the incongruous figure of a postman dressed all in yellow joined the scene. He’d parked his bicycle by the side of the road and was pressing the doorbell, holding the letters in one hand. There’s no one home, so he’ll just stick the letters in the mailbox; just as I was thinking this, I felt the first stab of the cold water, piercing the top of my head and the nape of my neck and the rim of my ears. The next moment I felt the weight of the water pull me under, cold hands seizing me and tugging me down. The cold was lethal, and my limbs were rapidly becoming numb. I’d fallen into the water, I knew this perfectly well, yet I kept on mechanically lifting my feet up and down. I imagined that I was walking down a flight of stairs—stairs of water, which were rapidly extending downward as I placed my feet on the next step. Without needing to look behind me, I knew that they were disappearing as I descended, that the section I’d passed had already dissolved into the water. The thought suddenly came to me that “returning” is merely a word, not something referring to a real possibility. I was going to mumble that something had gone wrong, but my frozen lips wouldn’t part. Icy water had seeped in between them when I first fell in, freezing them into immobility after my initial cry of distress. Water bearing the deep chill of midwinter, water that pierces and penetrates warm winter clothes, cold enough to carry off my soul. A devil was stabbing me with an ice poker. When I broke the surface I’d felt a pain as though my lips had been gashed on sharp rocks, as though a bone had broken in my left side, so extreme that I saw fireworks flash in front of my eyes.
September 1, 1992
On his knees, the seven-year-old prayed for his family. For his mom and dad. The little dog next door pacing outside the doghouse. The red roosters with fat muscular legs tied to rusty rebar stakes in the ground. He prayed for the city of Savannah and all the barrier islands. He prayed they would survive this black, swirling mass.
Speaking over the eerily robotic intonations of the weather radio, he chanted the verse. It was his mantra during times like these. The air lit up around him, tiny pixels of strange light that only he could see. He swore to others they were there. He saw them plain as day. The visions, his mom called them. His body grew warm as if steaming bathwater were encircling him.
In his hands, the boy clutched a black Bible. His name glossed the cover: William H. Fordham in gold lettering. It was a Christmas gift from two years prior. Already, the pages showed wear. Highlighted verses and pencil scratches marred the smooth tissue paper. The yellow streaks and graphite marks had made his mother proud.
She hovered above him now, pacing. Turning up the weather radio. The cold, alien voice grew louder. The syllables didn’t connect as they should. The end of each word began promptly with the start of the next. No pause for breath in between. It was unnatural. It sounded like cold metal coming to life. Will imagined the rectangular furnace beside him awakening. Appendages, eyes, teeth, and consciousness as it belched the English language in loud, sober proclamations.
“Saturday-evening. Storm-warning-for-all-in-neighboring counties. Warning extends-to-all-on-the-Georgiacoast. First squall. Thosein-thefollowingcounties. Find shelter. Stayinyourhomes. Second-squall-forecasted-for7:30.”
That word. It terrified him. It sounded like the noise something makes before it kills you. “Mommy, what’s squall?” Continue reading
After the Fire
The smoke was tremendous—choking flesh made sky. It was even lovelier than the flames, great hands wrenching wood from stone, not a surgeon’s hands—anatomical, precise—but a drunk old pugilist ready to go down swinging. Or maybe they were more like teeth, ripping and tearing in one long devouring breath the entirety of my childhood. Of course, it wasn’t just the house. My father, brother, lover all burned. The three men in my life, their bodies grown round with beer and steak and wine. My mother had disappeared long ago. Hers was a diminishment, a gradual acknowledgment that her space grew smaller and smaller with each breath of my father or brother or lover, until finally, one warm July morning, she exhaled and collapsed into memory. Now, the heat and smoke rise and take the shape of her, phoenix-like, though I know it is only an illusion, a trick of the mind to render what is painful, to feel the pleasure of lapping at old wounds. As my mother became air, my father, brother, and lover remain grounded, their bodies a kind of permanence. Now they are piles of ash and teeth and bone, ready to drift into a plate of spaghetti, to slip through the gears of a pocket watch, to be sucked into my little cousin’s nose right before he sneezes. Continue reading