(Pan Zhi Ming – English name Zachary – is a Hakkanese man who lived in the forested foothills of Miaoli County, Taiwan. What follows is a translated account of what happened to him and his wife the day Typhoon Soulik arrived.)
Pacific summers: sweltering, wet, and mystical. It’s the season of climatic alchemy, the time when the gods reign down in all guises and shapes to craft the world according to their will. I’ve been privy to this all my life, I a citizen of the natural, mountainous wonderland that is Taiwan. Yup, I’ve seen and felt my share of tectonic upheaval, bore enough witness to heartache caused by landslides, and been scared witless on at least three occasions as uprooted trees danced like the undead before my eyes.
But nothing compares to what happened the day Typhoon Soulik arrived. My eight-month pregnant wife and I were living out in a forest then, our home nestled in between swathes of Acacia and You Tong Hua trees as intimate a heaven as we could know. The days leading up to its arrival had brought with them a disconcerting unease, there a tangible sense of foreboding about its arrival. Nevertheless, we readied ourselves for it, I digging canals in the soil around the back and sides of the house so that the rains would stream off the hill behind us towards safe ground. We’d been living in the forest for two years by that stage.
We already knew how calamitous Soulik could be, I having spent a week the previous year shoveling the driveway clean after Typhoon Soala wreaked havoc. In spite of knowing this, neither my wife nor I mentioned the possibility of relocating for the weekend as to avoid any compromising situations.
I guess we neglected this as we’re both romantics at heart: people of the land who’ve always lived by its whims and ways. Anyway, it was in the early hours of Saturday morning when Soulik arrived. The way its initial streaks of rain hit the house’s clay roof tiles was like a call to arms, only to quickly transform into what sounded like a full-scale battle. While this got the heart racing, I believed everything would be OK: we had, after all, lived through this kind of thing many times before. I lay motionless in bed and tried to fall back asleep, but with the rain in no mood to relent, I got up and made some coffee.
Whilst fixing a brew, the rain started pounding down. If you’ve never been in a typhoon-situation before, it’s difficult to describe the sentient nature in which the elements meet the Earth. Gusts of wind rushed around outside like a demonic mob wanting to be let in. The ferocity with which they whipped and sliced through the air set my heart racing again, but after a couple minutes its rhythm fell in tune with the calamity happening outside. My wife woke up and entered the living room. Although appearing calm and collected, I noticed a look in her eye I’d never seen before.
“Everything ok?” I asked.
“Yeah,” her hands instinctively went to her belly. “I suppose I’m extra sensitive because of the little one. Could you make me some tea, please?”
Once the pot of high-mountain Oolong was ready, I sat down beside her. The living room was a small, engaging space, its walls seemingly always on the verge of spilling a secret. With the two of us forced into silence by the fierce natural barrage going on outside, my mind drifted to what had happened before we moved in. A foreigner had lived here previously only to disappear without a trace. The story goes he’d been house sitting for another foreigner, and following three weeks of non-contact with a friend, she’d come to investigate. What she saw then must have scared her witless, because it’s said she looked as if her soul had been sucked out of her body when she walked into the local village’s police station that afternoon.
Whilst caught up in the past’s mysteries, the rain continued pelting down, it simply unbelievable how violent the combination of water and gravity could be. Not much later, fireworks got going. At first, a whirring sound rose out of nothing to fill the house’s interior, and was followed by a sharp, sudden explosion. In the dark, smoky aftermath, it dawned upon us our electricity was gone, Soulik having jumbled the electric wires outside and fried the house’s circuit board. My wife’s tension became tangible, and while searching for a candle and matches, I started to think we’d bitten off more than we could chew with this one.
Once a sliver of light got going, I sat back down beside my pregnant wife. As our thoughts and nerves bristled and brewed, the rain died down a bit, long enough for me to see what damage Soulik had caused. I stood up and opened the entrance door, and what I saw blew me away. The courtyard had become a graveyard of debris, its watery, muddied skin a collage of leaves, branches, and bamboo poles scattered in all directions. To the house’s right a waterfall had formed, its powerful, murky waters gushing voluminously down the driveway. The sound of the wind was core-shattering, it as if the souls of a million dead cats were being whisked along its invisible currents. Everything felt unreal, yet I couldn’t linger, as the rains soon returned with a vengeance.
Talk about power and fear. The force of falling water quickly reached staggering proportions, and I knew that if we didn’t get out soon, we’d be in real trouble. I filled a large duffel bag with all our most valuable items, and moved our furniture into the safest possible spots. While doing this, a loud crashing ‘BOOM!’ cut everything in half. I instantly knew what had happened – a portion of the hill behind the house had collapsed. It’d happened so powerfully and suddenly that the bedroom windows at the back of the house had shattered, and copious amounts of saturated earth had rushed in to drown the bed and floor. Additionally, four large Acacia trees had come down, and these monsters had blocked up the recently-dug canals. This meant the biblical surge of rain no longer had a path to flow along, and the water level quickly rose so high it gushed through the broken windows into our home.
In spite of us being caught up in a real-life disaster, my wife simply turned to stone. I can’t say I blame her – the scene was nightmarish – but time was against us. I took her in my arms, exited through the front door, and trudged through Hell-on-Earth before planting her on the truck’s passenger seat. I then ran back into the house and grabbed the duffel bag which was bobbing up and down beside a small, upturned table. When back at the front door, I said a shocked goodbye to the compromised Eden my wife and I had called home.
Our troubles were far from over. It being a forest dwelling, we still had to get to the main road. It took minutes to get the truck going, and when it did the windows had misted up so badly I had to stick my head out to see the driveway. We inched forward slowly, the surface beneath us a morass of mud, branches, and stones. It’s a miracle we got out of there alive, I of the belief that if we didn’t get hemmed in by a landslide, I’d be decapitated by any of the countless objects flying about. By the time we reached the road, my wife was nauseatingly white, and I was so muddled with fear I got the brakes and accelerator mixed up twice, both occasions nearly seeing us end up in the trees. The two-mile track back to civilization was a hellish test of attrition, my wife’s persistent prayer to be spared the soundtrack to a movie I’ll never forget.
The length of time it took from the hill collapsing to us arriving at the nearest police station verged on an hour. For my wife and me, it was the longest, most sustained period of horror either of us had ever experienced. When we arrived, most of local community’s residents had assembled, and in the midst of everything my wife’s water broke. Her labor – by God’s grace – was quick and effortless, and together with the good fortune that were two doctors and an on-site ambulance, our son was born happy and healthy, he the phoenix that rose the day Typhoon Soulik turned our lives inside out.