The First Arcology
When they had begun building the arcology it didn’t have a name. Many had not heard the word before, did not know the origins, and their minds fashioned an Ark of incredible size. It was beyond language and therefore beyond imagination.
They were the dreamers with means. They wanted to dream their way out of the impending doom that came with the floods that always every year seemed to grow higher and higher, scorning every tired, inadequate effort to tame them. They had cast their dreaming eye upon the dark, clogged rivers and the worn cement of sinking cities, saw the cobbled houses on stilts with their patchwork roofs that lined the waterways and sewers and said We will make for them a new kind of city to unburden the old. When they closed their dreaming eyes they saw the arcology, able to feed itself and power itself, an organism not unlike a tree, needing nothing else but good land and the cooperation of all its parts, ready to survive into the new age.
To give shape to their dreams, they first had to decide what shape the arcology should take, what kind of shell to give a structure that condensed the many processes of life. We will build them tall, they said at first, but soon they realized it would collapse under its own weight, or the ground would be too weak to hold such a behemoth against the threat of earthquake or typhoon wind. Much of the land upon which they had sought to build the arcology was itself a construction, created from many efforts to beat back the sea through reclamation.
No matter, then, they said. Build wider, lower, even if more land meant the arcology would lose much of their original vision. Where to find this land?
Not long after, blights of insects would decimate what little farmland remained in the outskirts of the old cities. After other plagues had done their work, black, glistening swarms of uwang would go last, smelling the decaying trees, the horned beetles eating and having young in droves, starving the farmers who worked the land under some other man’s name. Upon them the dreamers took pity, black eyes glinting at the promise of so much land going to waste without their guiding hand, and they took them in, the idle, starving hands, the festering wood, even the beetles. Even as the farmers whispered to themselves, wondering to what end this land will be put to use as they surveyed the corpses of their rotting crop, wondering from where came the pestilences and these strange dreamers, the newest in a long, long line of people who had coveted land, even as they took account of their ever-dwindling number, they went forward and said, Yes. How to live off the land when the land had no more to give?
The dreamers had spoken to them, too, in a language that not many would dignify to use with them: the language of ownership. If the hacienderos saw no more value on the land save for the investment that came with their titles, their pieces of paper, then perhaps this land should be given to those who could see better use of it. Much of
As the sea continued to eat at the land, as cities became islands, the dreamers called to the displaced and whispered their grand plans. All we need is your labor, and we will show you a new world. They made food out of the various pestilences, bred new trees to be made into a hardy timber, used the waste from man and animal to fatten the soil, harnessed the frightful winds for power. They would say of the arcology, Yes, we have made progress.
Then the Flood came for them, and swallowed their story.
Inside the arcology there is only one season. Outside, they call it either “taglunod” or “tagsunog”, a time of Drowning or Burning. Our forebearers had been asked, once, for whom is this ark you are building over our lands, old graves, that are eating up the river and the wood around us? Once, they had been conscripted to build the arcology, a thing of wonder the more they learned about it. Yes, they were told, and yes, they would say back, This is the way forward, no supertyphoon would shake its foundations, no earthquake strong enough to unmake it. The ark turned into a city mighty and unyielding in the blueprint in their minds. And now their children are scattered, some inside, some outside. We, the children of those who were left behind, stay in the arcology and we ride out the storms.
And in our nightmares, the Flood. It is sentient, with its tempers and humors. From an early age we are taught to ward it off. We are taught the names of the fevers it induces. It seeks ever to seep into our walls and swallow us. It is the water that always devours.
Listen: In the first arcology, they built it up in the mountain. When it grew too big for the mountain, they built an arm for it, snaking down the river. The arcology followed the water out to sea, where they erected a second by the bay. When the algae had begun to choke up the beach, they dismantled the first arcology, ground it down to grit to build an island out of it. The bones of the first arcology they brought to the island and there fashioned the third arcology. On and on, for some reason or other—their walls and scaffolding weren’t strong enough, they have leeched all the clean water from underground, a disease they couldn’t contain—the arcology dies and is reborn.
We live in the tenth arcology, each one built over the skeletons of the last. Yet still the water rushes in. The Flood keeps finding new ways to invade, births new children in these places. We are taught to be watchful for them: watch the sea’s swells and heaves, ready for the next surge, mind the cracks on the seawall and the sewage gutters. We are told that, worlds away, there are perfect arcologies, but you can only reach them by drowning. Your body, bloated and cold, carried on a barge of algae, garbage, and rotting logs, broken down by acid rain, eaten by vermin who had lived all their lives on the floating leavings of cities, until, finally, what is left of you passes through the manmade gills of those fabled arks. You will feed them, their hybrid vegetation, their children smooth and soft, and give them dreams of a faraway land riddled with husks of corrugated metal, waking with the taste of rust in their mouths.
We Bakwit live in the shadow of the ninth arcology, one of many poók bakwitan. We are children of those left to fend for themselves after the storms and seas have come for all the safe places, and so to move from place to place is in our blood and marrow. Our numbers grow or shrink, and when we find another commune we call them Kasilong, siblings in safe haven. They say almost all of the dry land and islands we come across in the outer seas have been made by previous arcologies so they have places to cross or inhabit. Others say these were the graves of the old cities. Some would shake their heads and say they can’t tell what a real island and a reclaimed one is, but we know, those of us with keen noses, from the smell. Some places smell like decay, or having a metallic, electric taste to the air, others have a faint smell of earth, even when permeated by oil and muck or refuse. Towards the inner seas and islands we do not venture; that, they say, is the direction of the old cities and what used to be the mainland. The smell of it wafts our way, and we stay away from it, from superstition and fear. It has been a long time since anyone has dared to go that far.
In the burning summers of Tagsunog we rise early, just at daybreak, and we take stock of our needs: the fish caught in our traps, food and water we have collected and scavenged overnight, or of supplies left behind by other Bakwit, if our current bakwitan had been repurposed from an older one made by other communes. We smell, listen, and watch for signs of turbulent water or wind, or for signs of the arcology and their people, whom we call Taga-Arko, approaching or moving about land or water. They always leave signs, or cause other things to move, when it moves about.
Those who had inherited some religion or other would take this time for their prayers and ablutions. If you are not a gatherer or a builder, you take part in the cleansing of our stock, for the plants and animals all need good cleaning and cooking. To eat anything unclean now would be to take sick or die, though the younger ones seemed to have been born with stronger stomachs now. When the noon sun peaks, we hide to sleep or rest, tell stories, sing songs, or entertain ourselves on the rare occasion we come across a radio, a book, pieces bartered, bought, or even, they say, stolen from past arcologies.
In the afternoon all the able-bodied gather to observe our camps, make repairs, build our sleeping quarters. Some islands are so small that we must create barges to make room. Some might float away, and we must keep them tethered securely, or a sea animal, even a school of them, might disturb it and damage it. They, too, only come out when the day begins to turn cooler. Even at night the heat swaddles us thick and hot, so we keep near the water, where the breeze and the waves lull us to sleep, whispering dreams into our ears.
Once the signs of Taglunod approach, or when we see signs of the next journey of the arcology, we too make ready to leave, to follow it again, to find a new home, or to inhabit its hollow.
We call the arcology Balangay. They say it meant “ship” or “nation”, or that both meant the same thing. Some say the first Balangay was built when the island upon which they had built had collapsed, but we know no island. In the beginning there was nothing but empty sea. There are no other names for the weather except Bahalana. We have no name for when the water rises except Bahalana. When our filtration breaks and the water tastes of salt and muck, we say, it is what it is. Bahalana. We are a ship adrift.
They say cities used to stay in one place and drew everything into it: people, water, food, and all manner of glistening things. Now it moves, like god’s eye, still pulling things into it and flinging the leavings away. The city becomes a nomad whenever it has had its fill of one island, commandeering its remains through sea or flood until it finds another island, or by various mechanisms like millipede legs move by marching upon much larger land. Whenever this happens, we move into the space it has left behind. We track it as one tracks a sea animal. We make shelter out of the hollow it had carved into the land into which it would hunker and feast. It is an animal that has learned to live with the ever-changing archipelago, and we learn to live with it.
How do we say home? Tuluyan, Tuyuan. Come in and dry yourself. We are Kasilong, We Who Shelter Together.
Between Taglunod and Tagsunog we make our exodus. Our journeys depend on whose livelihoods must be attuned to the habits of the arcology, who would sometimes trade with them, or need their labor, or barter knowledge and news, and those whose industry thrives with our migration.
Paglusong—means having to ford the waterways created to feed the arcology and which delineate the paths it would take year-round.
Our survival depends upon the seamlessness of our life inside Balangay. We must operate its functions everyday. We study the movements of the long-dead animals and the ones that we have been left with, we study the old coral and cultivate new ones, we take to memory the various migration patterns of the things that fly, things that swim, we replicate the structures of living things that build or gather shelter. The past arcologies, they rose and fell having taken into itself the wrong animal, the wrong rhythms. We take these lessons and we recite them every night. This is how we pray, this is how we ward off Bahalana that creeps upon us when we are unawares, the will of the Flood. Baha, it comes from within, see. That is how it always finds its way in. The dark waters that have infected the very ocean, it knows when we are weak.
Some of us had kin who had lived in the arcologies. Some had kin who had lived in the islands upon which the arcologies had been built. Some had kin whose hands had calloused, bruised, bled, to build and feed the arcologies. Now we who had been left behind, we are kin now. Those who have been around to see how the arcologies had been built would tell us tales, how they would watch them weave wonders about their cities. Plant fibers, manufactured proteins, thinnest slivers of solarpane. Mountains would disappear, cave in upon themselves. Villages would disappear. The ark rises, or it grows roots, or it crawls and swims, able to move in all directions. A few times they have found a way to make them breathe. And, still, it is said, they cannot get rid of the flooding.
We try to put a name to the hollows. Up north, the oldtimers called Clark. Another, Bonifacio. This one, we call this Daluyong. See how the tracks of the arcologies leave the land uneven, as if their great appendages were wading through flood. And over there, the tidal waves that batter us, carving out more and more land each day. During Taglunod, when the waves have reached the marker on our seawall we must move once more. Just as the cities move to avoid the worst of the bagyo, we follow the signs too, and make ready to brace ourselves in the furthermost parts of the hollows. During the worst days, we scurry underground, in the guts of the hollows, where we have built our own little arks, ready for the next lashing.
We have found a way not to have the dreams. From mouth to mouth we share the secret. From the belly of the twenty-first arcology we grow ad harvest a weed which others then weave into thread. From this we make soft covers for our ears as we sleep, and it whispers good reams to us, dreams of a world without Flood. Where we know the names of different waters and the seasons are readable. The workers sing as they make the waving, and sometimes we sing this as we move about our work in the arcology. There were those who had worshipped the arid islands and the storms, and they had been corrected. There were those who had worshipped the arcology and had been corrected. We are taught to recite its many functions to protect against these thoughts. We are taught to make a litany of its parts-that-are-whole, and how they fit together by precise design. We are encouraged to recite these litanies to ourselves in the morning and at night.
Sometimes, when there is a quiet moment of separation and when to contemplate means to think of “I”, I with my body formed and fashioned for the arcology, I think of who might have dreamed this life, if it felt like jelly or fog, with uncertain shapes. I sometimes cast my gaze upon us, the arcology and I, the We, and I feel dizzy, I cannot contemplate. One body flows into another. One dream is echoed in another. We sing the same songs, the drone and hum so attuned. We move to keep the ark afloat. And with this thought I lose the quiet moment—there is only this, the seamlessness, the ebb and flow.
Once, they built gates around cities and villages, constructed suburbs to keep one life away from their other life. Its remnants are in the lifeblood of the arcologies, their genes. In its guts lie the memory of the cities it had feasted upon. In its bones the metropolis, the shining giants that had collapsed upon their own weight. But even cities defy their limits. Once, I had heard of a city whose very matter had come undone, had turned people, animals, even their surroundings, inside-out. Many died, but who knew what that means in such a place? They died, and they became part of the city. Many learned people then came to study it, what went wrong, how they might do the same, under their watchful eye. They say they had taken what they had learned there and began building the first arcology from it. What happened to the strange, ruined city, from which they had taken this material? We don’t know. But perhaps that is also a good thing. Perhaps it moves about the world now, a different kind of animal.
There will always be ways into the arcology, remember that. If it is to be a beast, a beast’s body is still a body moving about the world, has orifices and pores and organs through which it knows the seasons, has a form and therefore has habits.
We need to find new rhythms. The ways of those who live in the mounds that remained of mountains, cultivated land, whose languages are not our languages, whose songs are not our songs, we had been cut off from them long ago. We shed names and words the way lizards shed skin. From one of the third arcology’s watchtowers we could see, only barely, through the thick soup of the air, other broken towers, mountains and hills whittled down to nubs. We know there are people still, outside, hiding, and they look upon the arcology with perhaps scorn, perhaps longing. Or perhaps it is comforting to think that.
Sometimes we try to recall. The young, every word for rising freshwater is baha to them. Bahang puti, bahang itim, depending on the sediment. Sometimes the word ilog comes to mind. We know it once meant river but now the only image in mind is of raging flood. Rumaragasa—could be water, could be bodies. Ilog for when the flood is calm. Tabing-ilog—low-lying settlement—all settlement outside the arcology. After all, everything is near a river now, now that the rivers have come for us in their turning mood, becomes Baha.
But, look, said one to the other. Look at this body. The arcology, it has a body too. A body that leaves footprints, casts a shadow, expels waste after eating and drinking.
No, the other said. The arcology is a herd.
No. If the arcology was any of these things, we would already have a word for it. The arcology is a stranger bellowing by the gate, not telling us their name.
We made riddles, games, out of this. Who can list the many things the arcology is, what it isn’t. Arcology the changer, the hermit crab, the shedder. Arcology the beast of engines, matter-eater, the last landmark.
In the many versions of the arcology there were just as many stories of its beginning. In one, the arcology was a dream in the mind of one. In the story of the city that had disassembled its very matter, where thoughts and dreams had begun to take a physical form and when their phases flowed into each other in constant instability, it is said that someone had crashed into another and there exposed the architecture of that man’s mind. He was an architect, or an engineer, or a storyteller, or perhaps all of these, and in that crashing of bodies the plans for the First Arcology spilled out in bright rainbow colors, constructed from brain matter and the particles of their colliding forms.
This is one fable among many, but the heart of it is this: in the womb of our dreams lies a City. The arcology is a city after the dreams of many who wish for a different architecture. The City is made of locked doors and in our dreams we try to find the key. What is a door, and what is a key? When you make your first journey into the thirtieth arcology, you will see what these words mean. Key means: to enter invited. There are many doors to which you do not have the key, there in the arcology. But there are other ways to enter besides through doors.
I had a bad dream, where the Flood keeps seeping in no matter how many doors are closed. And it swept me away into another dream where I regurgitate black muck. Is this punishment, for thinking myself apart from the arcology, that there is an outside to the arcology, to myself?
We are told that the Balangay’s journey is essential to the life around us: those who well without making a living out of our movements, buy and sell the things we discard, make homes out of the hollows we leave on the earth as makeshift shelter against the heat and wind and rain. Should we one day have descendants, will they perhaps think of the world as borne on the back of the moving ark? Would they look about and say, This is a beast of burden? Do they who live outside the arcology look upon us as gods?
When we look out at the world, all we see is brown. Even the green outside is muddy, and every creature covered in a film of filth. Or is it our eyes that are unclean?
What is the beast that walks like a millipede? What is this that blows hot wind over the lands and flooded plains with its thousand insect wings? I had a dream, that the man who had built the first of all arcologies lays out his grand vision upon the table and explains it to me. He says, I will build a City in Man’s image. And I try to ask, who is this man the City is to take after? And he does not hear me.
Yesterday, some fellow Bakwit journeying from one of the southern hollows told us they were on their way to find the first arcology in these islands, after having heard news of its discovery. Our young, they thought they had meant a gigantic carcass lying half-buried, great spiderlegs or ribs or fingers sticking out of the rubble and soil, with carrion-maya covering it so thickly it would look from afar as if it had a fluttering down of brown-black feathers, rippling even during the standstill noon of summer. The older ones would scoff and say that the arcology never liked waste and would never have let it to rot like that. Ghosts and shadows, the elders would say. The floods have swallowed it up long ago. Some of us, though, felt the fluttering inside us, some wonder that there is some strange corner the tides or the heat haven’t reached in a long time, that maybe we could find. At the very least, perhaps there is something of use in the bones we could bring back to our Poók. The rumors say the ruins lie near the invisible border between the outer islands and the inner, older mainland from which our forebearers came.
We should like to see it with our own body, if it still moves the earth the way the living arcology does, if it carries with it a different smell.
We know if we undertake this journey that we would not see either Daluyong or our own Poók anymore, but inside of us there is a dream of a City where we don’t have to be Bakwit forever, like refuse that gushes out with the water.
The downburst came with the force of an explosion. We had not been able to avoid it; always as with the arks that came before there was some imperfection in our design, a margin of error in our predictions. Even the most well-adapted animal would die in freak weather. It is only a matter of time. The Flood is coming. Those without the discipline of the Balangay will be the first to be taken. From their lips burst strange prayers and cries.
And then, above us, we see the arcology torn asunder—not from the storm, but from the living walls unmaking themselves. One by one we see it shudder and wriggle free from one quarter of the arcology, then another, like a lizard ridding itself of its tail, before running off, already growing new limbs. Below us, the dark of the Flood, and the scream of the wind.
As with all things, there are signs, and you must know them with your whole body: the air crackles, becomes soup-thick. You smell alimuom—aroma of rainwet earth with the sour tang of long-buried chemicals and from singed smell of lightning—and you hear the distant rumbling. Around you other living things feel it, too, and flee. The swarms of pests crawl up and engulf walls, beams, every high ground. The Flood is coming.
Each arcology has documented quite well the composition of this Flood, the bacteria festering in these waters, how many kinds and from which body of water and from what kind of weather. How it flows into the murky sea, or which winds would push it in which direction.
Each time they become alarmed, see some new disease, an increase in volume, a new kind of deadliness. They feel the same fear that, many arcologies and many cities before, have been felt when a mountain-city knew flood despite its elevation. And they cast their fearful eyes about, at the source of the blockage, or at the site of some outbreak, and find within their architecture some deviation they had not anticipated, a mutation they can’t explain. Is the Flood sentient?
And they look outside, and they see the refugees, moving as the Flood does, each time seeing them Change in manner and in form. Mutating as the world has mutated. They see this and recoil.
The elders of our poók would tell us how they had come to our new land: The journey had taken all of Tagsunog. We lost a few of us to heat-fever. Others turned back, or joined another poók, or decided to settle on an island and ready for Taglunod. We feel and smell the air turning; we were nearing the edge of the outer islands. Here there were bodies of water closed off from the sea, not quite ponds, not quite lakes, from what the elders call the first big Rising of the waters. We fished here, seeing some manner of fish that looked the same but not quite from some we have eaten before. We ate our fill, dried some for the journey, but remembered not to take the young, or to eat too much.
We could not venture any further. The sea swelled and grumbled with each high tide, signs of storm season. We had gone this far with our barges, from which we could cobble together some form of shelter, but nearer to the inner islands the terrain was unfamiliar, and we do not know the reach of the floods and storm winds were here. The air here was more unpleasant, but something else, too. As the first curtains of rain began to lash our hiding place, we saw one of the hills moving from afar. We couldn’t quite make out its shape, but even through the blinding, stinging rain we could make out a shape, as if some hulking reptile had split itself in two. Was this an arcology? It had not looked like the ninth arcology.
The next morning, it still rained, as it was wont to do during Taglunod, but the deluge had calmed enough for us to attempt to approach. We saw some drowned souls in the lake, and pieces of gleaming scales littering the banks, but as we drew nearer to see if any had survived, or to try and pull the bodies to shore for a burial, the drowned began to change shape, no longer looking like men, but like something that couldn’t hold its form. They began to move again, flow into each other, until they formed masses large enough to reach land again. Many ran away in fear, while some of us had stayed, transfixed, as the masses took the shape of the land, growing mudlike, mosslike. They seemed to eat into the land, and even drew in the water that had begun to gather on its back, and with each step or movement onto dry land it began to grow. They seemed to murmur, though we couldn’t tell what language they used, if it was language at all. We turned back then to hide and wait longer, unable to comprehend what we have just seen, but even as we took shelter, we smelled it. A sweet smell in the air we hadn’t smelled this close before. Some Bakwit would describe it to us, they who claimed to have been to new islands where no other feet have trod. Alimuom without the sickly-bitter sting at the back of your throat.
And, so the elders say, you can smell this, still, whenever you till the soil, or during bursts of heavy rain. At night you could taste their dreams after eating our harvest for dinner.
This literary piece is part of Katitikan Issue 3: (Re) Imaginations.