I wrote this a few years ago in the wake of the tsunami in Thailand. I was extremely moved by the event, and it seems appropriate to post the story now in light of recent events in Japan – my tribute to all who are suffering there. When we see the devastation caused by these natural disasters, it only makes more poignant our need to end the disasters over which we have control.
One Small Statistic
The brown girl tugged at my hand. “Plaa,” she squealed excitedly, twisting the pocket of her blue slip in one hand. She pointed in the direction of the sea. “Fish!”
She wasted no more time in gaining my attention but scurried off on her weatherworn bare feet.
Fighting the temptation to return to my room and quell the hazy pounding in my head, the result of the previous day’s Christmas celebrations, I decided to indulge my curiosity and follow her to the beach.
I emerged from the palms to see the scene transformed. The sea, which had until now caressed the shore fifty metres from the top of the sand, had retreated at least five times that distance as though fearful of the land. The bustling chatter and astonished expressions of the locals showed that this was not a regular occurrence.
Save for a few fishermen wandering to and from their boats, I had rarely seen the Thais on the beach. It had seemed a domain reserved for tourists. But now the familiar vista of overfed and overdrunk holidaymakers lying, thanatoid, to absorb the sun had been replaced by that of dozens of golden-skinned locals, dancing excitedly. Shading my eyes, I spotted the cause of their animation; slivers of silver leapt with equal vigour on the wet sand at their feet. Their shiny bellies flashed in the sunlight as they twisted and flipped, searching in desperation for the vanished water.
The scene was undoubtedly unusual but one is so often confronted with the bizarre when one travels amidst an alien culture that I never questioned its strangeness. I was instead struck by the essential relationship between these people and the sea. It was not merely a pleasant view from a hotel window but a life-maintaining resource – mother and provider. Such gaiety and gratitude was derived from the game of catching the fish! Men scooped them up in their hands and loaded them into dried-grass baskets. Children grabbed at the slippery quarry, attempting unsuccessfully to keep a steady grip and falling about in screams of mirth when the wriggly creatures slid though their fingers to temporary freedom. I couldn’t help but join in with their laughter. Several metres away, I noticed the little girl in the blue slip. She caught sight of me and grinned through pearly teeth. “Plaa,” she said triumphantly.
The word had spread quickly. Dozens more Thais arrived to join their colleagues to reap the rare bounty. Engrossed as I was in the activity, it was several seconds before my brain registered a sound that was discordant with the contented buzz around me. I looked up to see a small group running at a speed towards us from further down towards the sea. They were screaming at the gathered crowd. My brow narrowed. I didn’t understand the words but there was no mistaking the tone; these people were frightened!
Others nearby joined the chorus of shouts. Within an instant, all had stopped what they were doing and were staring towards the ocean. I followed suit. At first, instinctively, I scanned the sea surface for any unusual object. Then I realised my mistake. It was the sea itself that was causing the alarm. The edge of the water had begun curving upwards like the swell of a cobra pre-strike. Within seconds, it doubled in size. I stood, dazed and frozen. A terrified cry snapped at my ears.
The primitive regions of the brain usurped my body. My legs whirled me round and carried me towards the road. My eyes scanned the area for higher ground. A moment later, I burst through the doorway of the nearest two-storey restaurant.
The ground floor was deserted. I glanced around frantically for the stairs. At the back of my consciousness, I was aware of the increasing roar of the wave, gaining in predatorial swiftness. I spied the stairs and sprang towards them. Before I was half way to the next level, I heard the chilling blast of the water splintering the wooden structure. Fear punched my gut. The building warped and juddered as though it were made from matchsticks rather than poles as large as tree trunks. I was convinced it was collapsing around me. In unfocused panic, I lost my footing. I expected that, at any moment, I would feel the surge of the water around my waist and be thrust into its power like a helpless puppet. My arms and legs flailed. I continued to scramble upwards on all fours like a beast, my fingernails torn and bloody.
The building held. I reached the upper bar. All had flocked to the outdoor terrace in response to the commotion from the beach. I staggered out to join them. Every one was too mesmerised by the scene below to notice me. I reached the wooden railing and slumped against it.
I closed my eyes, fearful of what I might see when I opened them. Forcing myself to witness, I gasped aloud to see the height and speed of the water. It continued to rush inland less than two metres below the platform on which we stood, a dense, murky tide of mud and debris. Families sat huddled on nearby roofs. Boys clung to the tops of tall palms. Many were less fortunate.
The swiftness of the water carried a thousand fragmented images, a child’s bicycle, the mast of a boat, human figures clinging to tree-branches. Slivers of glass, metal, wood and flesh, all swirled together as though stirred in a broth, passing for a moment into view on the surface before being sucked below. In my periphery, I glimpsed a small, brown body surging limply with the gushing stream. In the instant before it was whipped from my sight, I made out a familiar blue material drenched taut against the tiny form.
That evening, the usual palpable divide between the wealthy tourists and local people seemed to have been forgotten. Thai staff sat with their guests at the tables. We sat in silence for the most part, grateful for company, striving to keep our thoughts away from the dead. We all knew the losses would be immeasurable; old and young, rich and poor, all nationalities, all religions. The sea does not judge or discriminate; it does not quantify the righteousness or evil of a man’s life. It unifies all, blending distinction into oneness.
The great wave of time, far more potent than the Tsunami, has blurred the once-vivid images. Months have rippled over themselves and, nestled in the cocooned comfort of my living room, the delusion of immortality has again thrown its blanket over me. The event has become a dream, diffused into scientific figures and statistics. I believe I would succeed in banishing it from my memory but for a single face, brown and smiling, full of cheer at the thought of collecting a few fish to bring home to her family.
Copyright Poeticalbeauty.wordpress.com 2006