Jen Mutia Eusebio
In 1938, the United States Government Publishing Office issued Soils & Men: Yearbook of Agriculture. The cover shows a line drawing of the sun, a cloud raining into the ocean, and a rise of land with two roads and seven trees. The book begins, “The earth is the mother of us …” Phosphorous and calcium build nerve cells and skeletons. Understand, then, our mineral-kinetic architecture thrums with the memory of dirt. Which is to say the provenance of our bodies—(macro)molecular, sentient, electrified—is ground.
The official state soil of Maryland is sassafras soil, whose name comes from the Latin word saxifraga. Saxum meaning “stone” or “rock,” and frango meaning “to break” or “to shatter.” The kind of earth that warms quickly in spring, formed epochs ago from marine and alluvial sediments and ancient contortions of water. Think: plow layer of dark loam, deep enough for the growth of roots and a communal burrowing of seventeen-year cicadas that absorb time into themselves, the way rocks do.
Scientists hypothesize that below the surface, where cicadas spend the majority of their lifespans, nymphs of the Great Eastern Brood apprehend the passing of time through taste, from the sap they eat and the periodic chemistries of their habitat. Decaying leaves release nitrogen. Ice crystals thaw over patches of moss as wildflowers with storybook names push into air: foxglove beardtongue, black-eyed Susan, great blue lobelia. Then begin days of flood engulfing the valley where the Tiber River meets the Patapsco.
What is the taste of a planetary orbit?
The way I recall it, 1996—they’d been underground for nine years by then—hit my tongue as blizzard, as soggy Fruit Loops in a ceramic rice bowl and the kitchen radio blasting “Wonderwall” on Z104.1. As weekend piano lessons in the mall, chords jangling against tiny molars that hadn’t yet loosened. During Christmas parties, my uncle would play Filipino love songs on the Yamaha while my cousins and I sifted through candy dishes filled with mints, honey-glazed peanuts, copper pennies, and old matchbooks. In the living room looped television replays of a Baltimore Orioles game. Eight o’clock on those evenings tasted like a roast pig with its jaw around an apple. Distant archipelago languages our American-born lips couldn’t speak haunted our throats.
Submerged in clay and sand, immature cicadas do not sing; they feed and wait and wait. They are not dormant. They tend to their hunger where they are. A fermata, indicating prolongation, sits on top of a whole rest. The rest is a silence. The musical notation of the fermata, a single arc over a single dot, resembles a seed in a tumulus and functions not only as a cipher for extended duration, but also as a tempo command. Another way to say this is pulse. As in the drone of capillaries beneath the translucent skin of a wrist. Touch the breastbone. It is there too. In geologic love language, “stratum” translates as “long breath.” Or even as “what is buried can also hold.”
On the seventeenth year, the brood emerges. The first act is to molt. They slough off hardened, juvenile skin and release the membranous wings underneath. Soon amber exoskeletons litter the dimpled concrete of suburban driveways, collect in the shadows of mailboxes, and jam the rain gutters. Hollow things that glow like debutante gowns, the way they capture light. How does it feel, I wonder, to crawl out of yourself with urgency? As if youth were a house on fire.
Cicadas do not survive long under the sky, four to six weeks at most. As adults, they shrill and mate and lay their eggs in trees and expire. Just like this, enveloped in chanting and sex, maybe such creatures see themselves buried in cloud. A generation vanishes, its life consummated. After the mating period, newborn hatchlings descend from egg to underbrush and start to tunnel downward. On the journey, they nudge against curious, decomposing hulls shaped exactly like themselves.
Sassafras soil tells me: ground is body, is archive and feast.
Also: echo, ghost, and passage.
To us, whose origins gesture to water, soil is a crossing over.
My mother descends from the Maranaw, known in the Philippines as “the people of the lake.” Yet she does not come from them alone. The current swept in others. Our elders speak of an Arab missionary, a Chinese merchant, and a Portuguese settler who travelled by galleon on the Manila-Acapulco trade route. Dansalan, the Maranaw word for shore, may be rendered as “that which is dashed against or reached.”
To arrive is to chisel away the ocean.
The central point of reference is nautical. Land manifests as periphery. An outer limit of the visible, perhaps. A Tagalog riddle documented in 1754 by Spanish priests in the Vocabulario de la lengua tagala describes the human eye as a pond “fenced in with fine bamboo strips,” eyelashes likened to damp wooden fish traps crowding the shallows. Water dilates the contours of the mundane, finds the luminous. A floor mat rolled up in daytime hours becomes “at night a sea.”
Dirt (opaque, where the spirits reside, the theatre of revolution) is the stuff of igneous dreams. When we sink our fingers into mud it is to make dowsing rods of bones. The stones murmur. A master carpenter slits the neck of a plump hen with a bolo knife and drizzles the blood over a fresh construction yard. The stones quiet. As a girl, my mother believed that the people of Mount Malindang, its ridges curved like a dragon’s spine, could turn anyone to dust by breathing on them.
Even now, the mountain forest rumbles with armies. Taal is restless; not long ago the volcano exhaled a plume of ash. Here in Manila, we shoved wet towels under our doors. The air smelled burnt. These days, the southwest monsoon hovers in a knot of indigo thunder and I read about skirmishes and martyrdoms in the foothills. Fruit ripens to the season. On nights of high wind, mangos hit the roof and crack like bullets. We retrieve the bodies, chronicle the names. Or chronicle the bodies, retrieve the names. Grief is desire prolonged, stretched taut over a drum. At the burial, pounding their fists, the mourners chant: long live, long live …
My bones are shaped like my grandmother’s bones.
Mama Juling, born on Adtuyon clay, walked bowlegged when she was alive. I am also bowlegged, although there have been attempts to remedy the matter, with spinster aunts gently kneading my limbs when I was an infant, as if I were a lump of dough. When that did not work, they ordered corrective shoes.
Adtuyon clay is a descendant of volcanic lahar, reddish brown and granular and flecked with basalt. At times I picture my grandmother as a young woman on the cacao plantation: it is a December morning in 1941 and she swings a broomstick at a large iguana that has been killing the chickens. Feathers catch in her hair, her dress. As battleships reach the island of Mindanao, she climbs into a rice barrel with her younger sister and pulls the lid until it is dark. Bathed in grain, they count each other’s breaths and the footsteps of the men with guns. A Japanese soldier kicks the barrel. Her fingers tighten around the handle of a knife.
In Maryland, my grandmother is an old woman who chases the deer out of her immigrant daughter’s garden, and I am a child who digs holes in the yard. She tells me: do not touch your mouth. Though I’d learn early on that the taste of a homeland never has enough water. My inheritance is departure; earth on the tongue awakens an instinct to cast off. So my grandmother tempers this with sweetness. On afternoons when Mama Juling bakes torta, my job is to stir the batter clockwise. I must not break the direction of orbit, she instructs, knowing surely that I will.
Soils & Men defines “drift”—namely of the glacial variety—as “material of any sort deposited in one place after having been moved from another.” I gather my former addresses and press them into the arches of my feet. A cold building with stained glass windows, once a Catholic orphanage. Brownstone by the river. Dilapidated government housing that shuddered with every passing train. A city in a desert, and a city in a city. Three metropoles, an orchard. They are now fossils, embossed into parts of me whose names I learned from biology charts but eventually forgot. When I visit my grandmother’s tomb, I leave her a smooth pebble to remember me by.
Drift. The ritual of a packed suitcase and brass keys returned to landlords and six o’clock taxi rides to departure terminals. I like standing still on moving walkways and shuffling down the aisle of an airplane in flight. Have you visited a farm during your stay? On disembarkation cards, customs authorities ask how much of a world hides in the crevices of a muddy sneaker. The question pertains to the risk of ecological disruption—microbes and pathogens. Transmittable livestock diseases with the power to cripple industries.
But I am thinking of a demolished ancestral home—my mother draws it for me, a rattan chair next to the veranda—and a plantation that no longer harvests cacao, only falcata trees whose wood is soft, ideal for boxes and shipping pallets. I am remembering how one day I climbed to the village at the top of Mount Malindang. My cousin is a teacher there in a classroom on stilts. The children sang, and we ate pork and banana blossoms flavored with star anise. When clouds thickened over the village, I descended the mountain on the back of a hired motorcycle.
Keep ahead of the rain, I’d been told. Or you will be trapped here.
Dust flew into my mouth. From behind his shoulders, I asked the man driving the motorcycle, “Can we see the ocean from the road?” The road was narrow, unpaved. At every sharp turn, the two of us would tilt our weight away from the ledge. Below the ravine, my grandmother’s land rushed turbid under my heels, so I looked for them: woman, broomstick, iguana, feathers, soldier, knife. And my own shadow dancing across the cliffside. To leave is to strip off a whole continent, a tectonic plate, and fold it between your teeth. The disembarkation card wants to know how much of a world carries through. There is no room to write: all of it.
Jen Mutia Eusebio is currently a PhD student at the University of the Philippines, Diliman, where her research focuses on the intersection of writing craft, pedagogy, and cultural memory. She received her MFA from Emerson College, and her prose has appeared in Likhaan: The Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature.
Lumbera, Bienvenido L. Tagalog Poetry 1570-1898. Ateneo de Manila UP, 1986.
Soils & Men: Yearbook of Agriculture. United States Department of Agriculture, 1938.