Pasig River?s decline was said to be infamous. This was something else.
Eunice had promised that the ferry would undercut traffic by hours. Orife believed her, unfamiliar as he was to the congested spaces of the metropolis. He found, however, that her alternative was less reassuring. The ferry docks appeared abandoned. They sat next to a shantytown where trains zipped noisily nearby and giant billboards overlooked the landscape. In the middle of this squalor was the river?a tortured feature that seemed to bisect the city like an open wound. Small wooden outriggers and motorized catamarans cut through these thoroughfares, their wakes liberating debris and clouding up the river?s surface.
This general sense of disrepair extended to their ride. The skiff had no enclosure. Orife sat on plastic chairs and breathed in whatever stinging foulness the river exhaled. There was also no benefit to claiming a prime position at the ship?s nose. Once their craft got up to speed, an open-mouthed Orife was surprised to find himself showered upon by the river?s spray, its warm contents lingering on his lips. But most disconcerting of all were the life vests that lay scattered throughout the deck. They would have been a welcome sense of security on any other vessel. Here, the absence of other passengers made them appear like caskets in search of bodies. And they were a constant reminder of the grisly fate that surrounded them on all sides.
The boat took them around a peninsula where low-lying slums transformed into skyscrapers. This skyline hung like stalactites beside the river shoreline, the image struggling to reform after each droplet of rain. It was in between the first and second thunderclap that their vessel lost power. The skiff, now adrift, collided with a loose raft of wooden refuse and came to a stop in a web of hyacinths. Eunice was quick to inform him that this was to be expected. ?The propeller gets clogged,? she explained. ?It happens once or twice. Give him time to untangle it.? As the seconds dragged into minutes, Orife grew restless. The waters were choppier than before, tossing unfastened cargo throughout the ship. Orife made a show of grabbing his gut and planting his knees on the deck. And then he felt it. A force surged from his stomach, nearly splitting him open. Something warm and acidic wrinkled his nose. He barely had time to register Eunice?s scream before his head came in contact with a nearby headboard.
Orife resurfaced with an unnatural thirst. He attributed the hoarseness in his throat to bile. But Orife soon recognized it to be the brandy that had greeted him so fondly only hours before. He wore it now on his tie and on his chin, like a newborn that was recently introduced to the concept of food. Neither Eunice nor the ferryman was nearby to watch him wake. But he could hear their concerned voices whispering somewhere. And since they weren?t hovering over him, Orife assumed that he had been knocked out for quite a while. Blindly, he reached out for something to rinse his mouth with. After a few clumsy attempts at clawing at his surroundings, Orife finally came upon a bottle of water, its surface covered in friendly block letters. The head ferryman kept a stash of these refreshments near his station?along with an over-abundance of pork rinds. With one quick swig, Orife downed the drink. And then gasped. It had never occurred to him that the contents of his stomach still lay unsettled. His eyes watered. He dry-heaved. And worse yet: his throat continued to burn.
Eunice propped him up by the nearest leading edge so that he could better breathe. She seemed less self-conscious now that she was out of her gown and into something more comfortable. But her bob cut was proving troublesome, hair sticking to her face like cobwebs. She seemed to enjoy playing the puppeteer, coordinating Orife?s limbs, laughing at the fact that her fingers were too clumsy to loosen his collar. When the ferryman approached to once again peddle his supply of pork rinds, Eunice called him ?Chicharon? repeatedly until he was too irritated to stay. Orife had seen Eunice drunk before so this behavior was common territory. But her irreverence towards their situation became less charming. Still thirsty, Orife took another sip from the bottle. The swelling in his head worsened from there. He watched as the oil-slick waters became hazy and disjointed. He stared until everything drifted to black.
Pearl-shaped flashes of light crystalized from the darkness as Orife was surrounded by noise. He could feel loose gravel sifting in between his toes, his movement sluggish and ghost-like. He was a boy again, chest deep in the waters of his youth. Towering before him was a great waterfall that was high enough to blot out the sun. Its waters cascaded down in ribbons of white mist, collecting into turquoise pools at the bottom of a ravine. Water from Kawasan Falls would then bleed down Matutinao River and into the sea. Here, Orife swam, cooling himself from the sweltering jungle climate. He knew that this wasn?t a perfect memory because there were no tourists around to help drown out the roar of the falls. The only familiarity was his mother who constantly reminded him of things he quickly dismissed. ?Don?t drink the water,? she lectured. ?It can make you sick.? Despite this, he took in big mouthfuls of water as he swam closer and closer to Kawasan. Beside the falls was a rock face studded with huge moss-encrusted boulders. If one were willing, they could scale this cliff-side, mount the larger of these boulders, and dive into the clearing below.
?There are barely any natural handholds,? said Ireneo. Orife?s stepbrother had inspected the cliff-side throughout their stay and found that the rock had been polished to a smooth finish.
?That doesn?t stop the others,? Orife shrugged. ?Besides, we?re only here for a few more hours.? After that, the sun was going to set and they were going to abandon the town, depart for the airport, and leave the island of Cebu for the foreseeable future. Ireneo?s father was already waiting for them in their new house in Metro Manila. It was likely that they were not going to return to this paradise for many, many years.
?I could try climbing the stairs to the upper falls,? said Ireneo as he continued to survey the area. ?And then slowly make my way to the top of this one.?
?A thousand pesos,? said Orife.
?I?ll give you a thousand pesos. If you can make the dive.?
?You don?t have a thousand pesos.?
?I?ll ask my mom. She?ll give it to me. I swear.?
Ireneo looked back at the scene before him and smiled, as if he had been waiting for this cue all along. He then excused himself and started swimming towards the base of the cliff-side. One hand over the other, Ireneo scaled the rock face with a spider-like sense of intuition. Orife watched as his stepbrother?s feet slipped on the moss-laden surface before wedging themselves into cracks in the stone. To anyone else, his steps would have been misinterpreted as clumsy. But Orife knew Ireneo enough to see when he was being cautious. Their mother was less thrilled, however. Orife allowed himself to be dragged back to the pool?s steps?if only to get a better vantage point. All eyes were now on Ireneo, perched as he was on the topmost boulder, sitting on an incline like he was about to slide. It was a poor position. Orife could see no way for Ireneo to stand properly or make a running start. He would have to jump with his back still pressed to the wall. Orife tried to imagine what was going through his stepbrother?s mind, inspecting the young man?s face for a hint of hesitation. But he was too far. With one shove, Ireneo was in the air, spread-eagled. The force had put him in a slight tumble. Enough to set him in a headfirst position. He was going to land far too close to the base of the cliff. The mist thickened and Orife could no longer hear Kawasan.
?Where did you get this?? Eunice asked as she held a water bottle?his water bottle?to her face. She used it on her jaw, nursing a nonexistent sore. Her skin was feverish and soaked from where the rain had hit her.
Orife blinked and was disappointed to find that their skiff had only drifted slightly further downstream. The clouds still lay like a thatched blanket with billows of dark shapes rolling in from the west. It was possible that they had not moved since Orife last closed his eyes. But there was an audience watching them now. Panhandlers and buskers, a majority of them children, emerged from surrounding sewage pipes and waved in their general direction. Some threw their kites at them, towing their strings like lures through the water. But this section of the river was too wide and their skiff sat in the middle and out of reach. It was all a futile attempt at rescue anyway, meant to entertain rather than retrieve. Orife also assumed that this was the first time something in the river had stood still long enough to become a subject of interest.
?I?m going to pay for it,? said Orife to Eunice as he snatched his bottle back. He meant to sound apologetic but it came across as irritated and gruff. Part of that was his drunkeness. His throat felt so raw that inhaling made his eyes water. Another was his growing back pain. He had chosen to lie on an uneven section of the deck, where wooden planks splintered from being stepped upon so frequently. These splinters bit into his back and thigh, cutting off circulation, turning his skin pale in some areas. He tried shifting his position but found that he was too relaxed to struggle further.
Chicharon came by again, this time without his basket of goods. He was a gangly man with a sun-beaten brow and a face as stiff as granite. But there was a kindness in him, maybe pity, that prevented him from talking to them. It must have been strange, thought Orife, seeing one?s passengers in a state of intoxication and being powerless to do more. Eunice was still giggling, turning over like a sleeper engaged in a very satisfying dream. Orife, on the other hand, hid his stolen water bottle as soon as he saw the ferryman approach. Chicharon didn?t seem to notice him. He was busy turning over chairs, looking under tarpaulins. It was possible that he had noticed something missing by now. Orife did his best not to draw attention to himself, pretending to sleep, and making circles with his thumb across the bottle?s plastic surface. He felt the beads of condensation trickle down his fingers, a refuge of coolness resting in his hand. It made the dryness in his mouth all the more agonizing. With one eye half-open, Orife watched as Chicharon stalked back to the aft and continued his repairs. Then he lifted his find to his lips once again.
The taste was still as awful as he remembered. Each new swallow seemed to worsen his nausea. But Orife reasoned that it was something that he had to power through if he wanted to get better. He tried to screw the lid back but his hastiness sent the cap flying. It bounced on the deck and into the air, threatening to end up in the river. Horrified, Orife jumped after it, his weight tilting the entire skiff and its contents to one side, sending everyone in a panic. This shift left Orife off-balance and he was now face to face with the water?s surface. He didn?t hear the splash.
He was back again?in the darkness and in the warmth. But much of that darkness was Orife shielding himself from the light of the sun. The ground had become a kind of paste that made it difficult to cross. He was wearing a hardhat and boots this time, treading the path back up the river. Boulders crashed as bulldozers chipped away at the river shoreline. Much of the water had taken on a brownish hue, like coffee with too much milk. This silt filtered downstream, down Matutinao River, and out of sight.
His stepfather was waiting for him alongside some of the other construction workers and foremen. Every now and then, Orife would catch the old man grumbling quietly to himself, wiping away nonexistent beads of sweat, and scowling at nearby foliage. Nothing about Kawasan seemed to live up to his expectations. But that was bound to change soon. The plan, if it could be called ?simple?, was to cut through the swath of land that made up Matutinao River, Kawasan, its subsequent falls, and the stretch of mountains that crossed over to the coastal town of Argao on the opposite side of the island?to create a canal system not unlike the one found in Panama. This would facilitate faster trade between western and eastern Visayas and allow shipping vessels to cut through the island of Cebu instead of going around it. This would also require widening every section of the current river, increasing its depth, and creating several artificial lakes across the island to bridge the canals. The task was monumental. But Orife knew that its motivations were not as economical as his stepfather would like to believe. With every snapped tree branch and muddied riverbank, the grimace on his stepfather?s face deepened. Orife likened the project to watching a man finally slay the animal that had once eaten his child.
The last of the executive board to finally join them was a bookish woman who wore her hair in a fashionable bob. Orife?s stepfather introduced her as a local girl who grew up in the nearby town of Badian and supplied them with most of the environmental permits. She was also the youngest in a group of middle-aged businessmen, a fact that seemed to fly in the face of her old-fashioned name. Orife gravitated towards Eunice, hoping that youth was enough of a common ground to make an acquaintance. But the most effective talking point revealed itself when they all spent their lunch at one of the last remaining tourist pubs by the old Kawasan falls.
?You can sing,? she said, surprised.
Orife pulled himself away from the bar?s karaoke machine, away from the cheering crowd, and delivered their drinks to their table. Eunice drank hers tepidly.
?Out of respect,? he replied. ?Our family used to come here every summer. We?d rent a cottage and sing until the wee hours of the morning.?
Eunice smiled. Orife couldn?t tell if she was considering him or patronizing him.
?Well, I wish I could have seen it. Kawasan, I mean. Your Kawasan.? She rubbed her index finger across the table, her eyes averted and distant. Orife felt himself sink into his chair. He had never felt older than in this moment.
?Well, if you visit Manila, I can show you around.? It felt like an appropriate offer. She smiled but said nothing. Orife allowed the silence between them to fester as he stared at the colors of light reflected on his drink. It was an image of the forest outside framed upside down due to the optics of the glass. The towering trees reminded him of the buildings of Pasig, how they seemed to crowd over everything. It made his heart race. And then he realized how difficult it was to breathe.
Orife emerged from the river like a banshee, desperately clawing onto the deck, cherishing every gasp of air. He couldn?t stop crying at the horror of his predicament, the water?s rancor infiltrating every possible sensation. It was like swimming through a mixture of rotten syrup and excrement. He didn?t dare open his eyes in fear that some of the liquid might actually blind him. But most importantly, he kept his lips shut and his nose pinched. He swore that he would imbibe none of the river?s influence and he wasn?t about to break that promise now.
Rough hands grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him back on deck. He could feel Eunice frantically pat him down, fearful that some part of his body had become maimed or infected. Chicharon was more cautious, standing over him with an expression of revulsion that Orife did not expect to find on a seasoned ferryman. Chicharon then ran off to finish his repairs on the motor. But not before snatching back the bottle of water Orife had stolen. Orife would have apologized but he was still wary of opening his mouth.
No explanation was made as to how their skiff was brought back to shipshape condition but Orife was thankful nevertheless. They decided to make an emergency stop at the port of Catang, close to the city of Argao. Eunice was the first to make it onto the jetty but her disappointment was palpable. Only two dockhands were present to greet them. With the exception of the ticket seller, the rest of the terminal was empty. They informed her that emergency services would still take some time to arrive at the scene.
?I?ll see if I can find a pail and some clean water. I need you to wait here.? And Eunice left before Orife could formulate a response. It didn?t matter anyway. Looking at her had become unbearable. It was in the way in which she sobered up, how hyper-competent she became under stress, how little of it he deserved. Orife did not look back.
Instead he clung onto the deck just before he collapsed. It was a fight just to keep his eyelids open. Lost to him as well were his dreams of turquoise waters and towering waterfalls. The images would not return no matter how hard he willed them. And yet, he was proud. He was proud because, despite his difficulties on the river, he had not let it affect him to the best of his abilities.
He planned on purchasing another bottle of water from Chicharon as a reward for his persistence. But as he inspected the ferryman?s refreshments, he was surprised to find no water being sold?only pork rinds. Confused, he was about to point this out when he spotted Chicharon pouring the contents of his old water bottle onto the engine. This gave off a large cloud of steam that was equal parts noisy and nauseating.
Quickly, as if the ferryman had practiced it a thousand times, Chicharon leaned over the deck and dipped the bottle into the river, rinsed it, and refilled.