Introduction: Storms and Dead Angels is a work in progress. It is set in a remote location in the Bicol Region, north of Manila, at the tail end of Cory Aquino’s Total War Policy against the Philippine insurgency, and is told from the perspective of dead twins and a young revolutionary who was their elder brother. 


II. By the Rivers of Ambon, I Sat Down and Wept

One late afternoon, after the fourth day of eating only boiled sweet potatoes and roasted coconut for lunch and dinner, I took my sister for a walk. Mama was in the kitchen, scrubbing pots and pans with ash and sand, and my brothers were either lounging about or loitering in the yard, waiting for Papa to arrive, hoping for a slight change in our evening repast. It was a highly ordinary day. The afternoon light was unremarkable because the vegetation did not cast shadows on Ambon’s famed red soil, and the animals made no sound. There were no smokes and savory smells emanating from kitchens, and the water buffaloes did not call up their masters. The day did not have quality. It was just there waiting to pass.

A force so languid overtook me that all I could do was reach for my sister’s hand. I held it as we walked out of the house in the direction of the river. I could hear my mother’s faint voice asking us where we were going but because it sounded as though she was merely saying it on reflex, half- concerned, we ignored her. By this time, the river was full and brackish from the rains brought on by the Amihan. The makeshift bamboo bridge that stood above looked frail and inadequate from where we stood, as though anyone who dared to cross over to the other side inevitably plunged into the raging waters below. We kept walking towards the river’s edge, clutching each other’s hands as we moved, unsure of what awaited us in the depths. Annabel momentarily loosened her hold on me but I gripped her wrist hard, with brute force. She looked at me with the calm complicity only twins will understand. We lowered our selves gently but resolutely into the mighty rapids, never letting each other go until our lungs filled with water and we sank and floated, then sank again.

News of our drowning reached my parents at dinner- time. It seemed one of the farmers who was cleaning up his water buffalo downstream, saw Annabel’s body caught in one of the tree trunks and hollered for help until people came. It took another two hours for my body to wash up in the shallows. Because we did not have money for a long wake, and the village was too remote for us to find an embalmer, my sister and I were buried within two days of being found. Mama and the other women in the village gathered all the jasmine blooms and red hibiscus blooms they could find and covered our bodies to stem the stench. The men in the village made a special coffin that would accommodate my sister and me so that we looked like we were merely asleep beside each other in the best, most beautiful bed we never had when we were alive. In a much wiser version of myself, dead and still a witness, I wondered what this situation does to a woman like my mother. I thought about Carlito. Would it be easy to find him now that Annabel and I are dead? I could tell you that the dead can tell tales but not really. I do not have any answers. Only that going into the river seemed like the bravest thing to do to stop the unbearable emptiness and confusion that visited us with unrelenting fidelity, everyday. 

On the second night of the wake, the day before we were to be buried, a scrawny figure appeared somewhere around 2 AM, when everyone was asleep except our mother who was absently fingering her rosary beads in front of our coffin. Carlito wore a straw hat and he looked emaciated, almost disappearing inside his baggy, careworn clothes. But he also bore an imperious calm in his demeanor. He walked towards us and laid his head on top of the wooden coffin. Tears began to stream down his face, small ones at first and then a cascade accompanied by a deep, full-throated muffled howl, which he stifled with his fist. My mother looked up and upon seeing her son, merely stared at him and continued with her prayers. If Carlito could hear me, I would have liked to tell him to stop crying. 

After the funeral, Carlito stayed, actually lingered, for a few days in Ambon. Neither resident nor complete stranger, the villagers regarded him with mild indifference and curious regard. Unable to stay with his parents or grandparents, Carlito relied on the kindness of friendly villagers who were sympathetic to his cause and took pity on him. They took turns feeding him and giving him shelter, their curiosity about his grief and the life he had lived outside Ambon, a tantalizing enigma that made them forget his parents’ grief. To return these favors, he regaled them with stories of the life he spent with the rebels. How one time, they witnessed a detachment of Philippine soldiers burn and pillage a village in the island of Ticao, in Masbate. This crew did not leave any stoned unturned, or hut destroyed, in their quest to root out any members of the barrio considered as harboring neps, shorthand for members of the NPA. “You see -- Carlito intoned for emphasis, the farther you were from command responsibility, the more impunity these soldiers felt.” In these poor villages where food and electricity were scarce, they became judge and executioner, interpreting the rules of war based on the barbarians’ playbook: sow fear and terror and these will sort out the rest. Because I became one of the best marksmen of my battalion, it was part of my job to identify the leaders of the military detachment and figure out a plan to assassinate them. And since we were often outnumbered and frankly had to sometimes fight with meager resources, we had to be creative in our approach to killing.” 

Sometimes, after telling his stories of violence and want, Carlito would catch faint traces of smugness and melancholy in the faces of the villagers, vividly etched by the twilight hours in Ambon. He tries to understand these moments by divining the villagers’ reactions according to those who felt sorry for him, and those who felt sorry for themselves. 

Deep in his heart, Carlito knew that he could not leave Ambon without seeing his family. On the third day after the twins were buried, he chalked up the courage to stop by their house. He woke at 4 am, a habit now baked into his being because of life in the mountains. Now trained in combat and life on edge, Carlito moved like a man with nothing to lose, getting up without the common rituals of waking, instead sprinting from wakefulness, to gun hoisted on the hip to the outdoors like an ever alert animal. Ambon at dawn is balm and bane to the weary soul. On dry and humid days like these, the red soil is like a bloody, rosy backdrop to an otherwise plain landscape. As light began to filter through clouds and vegetation, the ground shimmered, light and shadow still in a duel, the latter putting up a good fight, so that Carlito, despite his familiarity with his villages’ cartography, had to catch his breath and gasp at the power of memory and grief to hold his entire body hostage. 

He steadied himself as he approached their hut, now scragglier from surviving various typhoons and droughts. From a distance, the house leaned to the right, as if trying to not keel over but barely able to. The corner that faced the well was covered with dried cornhusks, and green plantains hung beside various farm implements. Their water buffalo was already busy foraging as he made out its dark profile against the coconut tree where it was tethered. His father often woke early and he can hear him at the back, clearing his throat with a gurgle of water. Carlito felt as if his heart was being trampled by a herd of goats, his ears and chest were banging so hard he felt faint. He steadied himself and summoned the brave marksman in him. He took a deep breath as he walked towards their open kitchen behind the house. “Pa,” he mustered. His father turned around so violently that Carlos thought he was going to levitate. Instead, as his father recovered from shock, both because it was too damn early and because what father would not react like that with a son who abandoned him? He stared at Carlito, looked at his hands and then said: “O?” the letter O frozen from father to son’s lips. He made out to kiss his father’s right hand and to his surprise, he let him. “Sit,” his Papa motioned. “Have you seen your mother?” He nodded and added, “yes, but we did not talk. At the funeral.” Silence. “You look thin, do you even have anything to eat in the mountains?” And just like that, a stream of truncated words and generous tears came spilling out of Carlito’s face and mouth. It was an elucidation of pain, contrition, guilt and so much longing packed in gibberish. When he lifted his head, he saw his mother on top of the bamboo stairs that connected the hut to the detached kitchen below. As he stood to kiss her hands, she moved back up and started calling his siblings. The three of them, still looking half asleep, rushed down and called his name. They stopped short of a hug and instead, the fourth brother, Edgar, poked him in the ribs and remarked again at how thin he was. His father started the fire and washed a basketful of sweet potatoes as his mother began preparing dried fish to fry. 

As the sun bathed Ambon in glorious, diaphanous yellow light, Carlito experienced what would probably be the only happy moment he will remember for a long time in his life. For the first time in his young, revolutionary existence, he felt as if his heart was filled with an unbearable fullness as he looked at his parents, his ten younger siblings and ate breakfast with them. In the abundance of this moment, he measured every move, every gesture of this family he never stopped loving. How his mother chewed food on the right side of her cheeks. How his father propped up his elbows on the table as he ate. The children’s and their always ravenous appetite, never filled, but at this point, predictable. He etched this tableau within a part of himself that will need it as he makes his way in the world. After a few words of goodbye and promises to visit again, Carlito took his leave. He stood up, and patted the youngest on his head before heading out towards the front of the house. As his parents and siblings profiles faded from view, only the hut and its singularity against Ambon’s pitiless gaze, was visible from his mind’s eye.


Cynthia Buiza lives in Los Angeles and runs a non- profit helping immigrants and refugees in California. She is also a California State Commissioner. Her poems and essays have appeared in Ani, The Philippine Daily Inquirer Sunday Magazine, Our Own Voice, Tayo Magazine, Migozine, Chopstick Alley, Paloma Press anthology collections and other anthologies in the U.S.