“Kada-hapon, di lagi makita ang langit sa kabaga sa mga kwaknit,” mused Roel, Levi’s uncle, while looking up at the clear night sky with a glass of bahalina in his hand.

As the night neared, the bats would rise up from Tabuk—the mangrove island along Palompon’s coastline—and fly mountainward for another hunt. A sea of bats would cover the horizon and momentarily leave Palompon apocalyptically dark. It was a scene that made all Palomponons look up and admire the sea of blackness in the sky.

“Sa katong wap-a to gidili, mamasol mis langit,” he reminisced. They installed one or two hooks on a kite’s thread and tugged the line like anglers do. And when they could see a bat flapping its hooked wing in hysterics, they would pull the thread down, skin the bat, and enjoy the meat that night over bahalina or beer. Such local afternoon vice has been put to a stop after making the mangrove island a sanctuary.

But now, the mangrove island looked like malunggay stalks tediously combed out. Tree skeletons in northern Leyte were a scene from an apocalypse movie. And no single bat made an appearance as the night neared.

But their absence was replaced with the overwhelming presence of the exodus from all over upper Leyte—especially Tacloban, Palo, Tolosa, and Tanuaun—waiting for their turn to leave this island of anguish. And it struck me that even leaving—in times of calamity—is still governed by bureaucracy, numbers, waiting, and turns. Yes, the surge of passengers was met with the scarcity of ships.

In Ormoc, a week after Yolanda devastated the upper Central Visayas, the priority numbers escalated up to 3,000 and some had to sleep three nights at the port, waiting for their ride like Nanay Susana. She lived in, fascinatingly, Barangay Milagros—a small place near Lake Danao—with her four grandchildren and daughter. One of their two shacks made it through Yolanda, and they could have made it through, without leaving their place, if Yolanda had not dug out their kamoteng kahoy (cassava) and other crops and twirled them away.

Making do

“Kitagaan mig duha ka saging tindok sa among silingan. Akong gibahin og katulo. Akong giluto ug maoy among gipamahaw intawn,” she shared. Wary of asking the wrong question, I only asked the most passing one, knowing the wounds that Yolanda left were still fresh. But she poured out her story with a simple question, “Pa-Cebu sad ka, ‘nay?”

Her son, who was working in Cebu, picked them up. Their neighbor, who got back from my home island, let her borrow P200 she could use for faring from Barangay Milagros to Ormoc. The P25 fare became P75, which left her begging the driver to spare her P20 for her grandchildren’s bread.

Her family and the thousands of displaced and homeless had no other option left but to leave the place they grew up in. Temporarily, she asserted.

But Josefina from Barangay Cambakbak—a rather mountainous barangay in Palompon—had a different story to tell. She decided to stay.

“Si Yolanda, sipat kaayo. Gilili akong atop kon naa bay luto. Nya ningsibat dayon,” she joked. Despite the severe damage to her neighborhood, she decided to stay, because for her and her neighbors, “ang pobre ray swerte ani,” others, like Nanay Susana, would disagree in vehemence.

“Kon naa pay kamoteng makawt, kaya pa,” she beamed with hope. She laid her own produce of saging tundan, bangan, bungan, kapayas—obviously, Yolanda’s leftovers, at Palompon’s seaside market.

One could tell who decided to stay and who decided to leave. Those who stayed were in the market either selling or buying. Those who wanted to leave lined up at the port.

At the port, the survivors’ stories could vary from one day to the next.

“Ingon siya, duha ra ang iyang gi-rescue,” an irritated local blurted out when I told her I had talked to a man who rescued seven people—the same man she had interviewed earlier.

Which version was true, I could not know. Perhaps, both were.

Jessie Precillas and his 13 companions left Tacloban via Hilongos to Ormoc and from there to Palompon. They had been meaning to leave Leyte, but still they found themselves waiting for their turn for a week already. In a day of waiting, there would be a tide of questions from curious individuals, asking them how they survived Yolanda.

And with a week of interviews, I guess it was rightful, instinctive—even redeeming —for him and his companions to become storytellers themselves, to airbrush their stories with an additional detail or two, depending on the situation before them.

They tell stories in order to be saved. They tell stories in order to survive.

We could not expect a neat narrative from places of distress, trauma, and death. What they had was a narrative of disorientedness, a little puzzle of sanity that only allowed them to remember what they wanted to.

Fear overcome

It was even insane to think of how they could have the bravery to boat from Hilongos to Ormoc when they knifed the very waters that murdered their friends, neighbors, and loved ones.

Instead of waiting another day for a safer, bigger ride to Cebu—which everyone had been hoping for— one of Jessie’s friends persuaded their woman companion to chance it in a fishing boat. She stomped her foot and eyed the waters with contempt and worry.

Hesitating to cross the waters to Bogo by fishing boat was anything but normal.

She had been looking at the sea for a week now, searching for that water that surged on eastern Leyte. But there in Palompon, the skeletons standing at the mangrove island would wound her eyesight. And while she asked herself if she could ever leave Leyte like the rest at the waiting line, those who decided to stay in Palompon would wonder about their bats’ whereabouts.

Would they come back like the exodus of people leaving this island of desolation?

Perhaps it would not be a question of them coming back but a matter of time.

Yes, when? Sometime this year perhaps? Perhaps to realize the often mouthed, “a new year, a new life”?

No one knows when they shall return.

*Jona Branzuela Bering scales mountains, treks rivers, combs beaches, hops towns, takes photographs, and saunters city streets for stories and poems. She blogs at http://backpackingwithabook.com.