Monday, March 4, 2013

The Collector of Lives (a short story)

(  I wrote this story just after the Tsunami, trying to find a way to understand what 200,000+ people dead really means)
 SHE LAYS still, her body bloated and pale.  In the constantly moving water, her long, black hair waves like ribbons in the wind. Fish swim past; nibble a bit at her battered leg, then move on. A small crab creeps over the mound of her bare stomach. A piece of seaweed is wrapped around her toe. He wonders where have her clothes gone to.
   Then he shakes himself awake. Dripping with an icy sweat, he manages, after long minutes of confusion, to pull himself into reality. The sharp truth that she is gone, gone not known where, settles once again in its usual place. He reminds himself that a dream is not the truth, the dream of her alone forever on the floor of the unfeeling ocean. It is not the truth, it is only an option.  An option among many, he assures himself. Why, when there are so many options, must the worst one be the truth? Why couldn’t she be alive and a few steps away from their own front door, just now ready to knock?  Why couldn’t tomorrow be the day that they lay in bed holding each other until the sun rises high in the sky for fear that letting go would dissolve the truth of their togetherness like so many grains of sugar in tea? Why not that? He spoke out to no one because everyone was gone who could have heard.
    They stayed for a while. They were lost, wandering this way and that- crying out, keeping silent. They paced his beach with him. They too looked out with anger at the sea; shouting impotently and at other times, silently watching, waiting. But then others came and said, "It is time to move on." And everyone left.  It was not worth their time to rebuild the village. They had no will to fight the ocean for the land. The sea had taught them who would be victorious. Throwing up their hands in defeat they walked away.  
    Once alone, without interference by "I'm so sorry" and "you must move on with your life" - he felt better. Strict routine helped. He woke at day break. Ate a sparse breakfast and spent the day patrolling. He would search the coastline up and down to see what the sea decided to return. To check if his Kade was among the ocean’s rejected rubbish. So far she was not. So far the sentence of her leaving was not complete.
    But others had returned. Nameless people, lives washed clean. These he would spend the afternoons burying. They were quite a few now, an even dozen since the day before yesterday when a girl, a teenager, washed ashore. She wore only the remnants of a purple t-shirt nothing else. Her face was gone and her left hand had only a thumb. She might have been twelve or thirteen, small nubs of her new breasts poked through the holes in the tattered shirt and curly dark hairs sprouted here and there around her pubic mound. Womanhood was just around the corner for this girl when she died. Somewhere her parents mourned her. Because of that he removed her purple shirt before laying her in the grave he had dug. Folding it carefully he placed it in the box with the eleven other identifying bits and pieces that he would show the buried ones’ families if they should ever decide to return. So that their question marks could be changed to solemn but finally ending full stops.
     The dream of Kade held deep on the ocean’s floor decided that sleep would elude him so he moves into the small light from the moon and opens the box. He has come to enjoy looking through the objects, creating the lives of the dead.
   There were pieces of various coloured clothing, a few rings, some necklaces, three single shoes. He took whatever the sea agreed to give back. Carefully, he turned a plain gold wedding band back and forth in the moonlight. He remembered it, it was taken from a short, fat woman with a kind face and a small pert nose who washed up only a few days after everybody was gone. He thought that she must have been loved by her husband for her soft, round body to hold for comfort in the inky darkness of an uncertain night.
    Digging to the bottom, he searched for the silver necklace, one of his favourites. It was a beautiful thing, smooth and well crafted. A man had worn it, a tall, well-built man maybe his own age. He imagined him one of the rich jewelers who populated the capitol. He was Chinese and he knew the Chinese in Jakarta were very wealthy. Though the poor often held animosity for the rich, he felt none for this dead jeweler.  If he were to be honest, before perhaps, but not now, loss had equalized things, pain had set the meter back to zero and everyone could now look eye to eye.
    Soon a thin line of light appeared through the hole that once held the glass of a window. He puts everything carefully back into the box. Getting up, he rolls his sleeping mat and places it in the corner of the empty room. He grabs the door on both sides and lifts it to the side. It’s a bit small for the space; their door had been torn off and taken somewhere else so he had replaced it with another found abandoned at the shoreline. He walks into the coolness of the new day. After stoking the fire back to life, he adds a few broken pieces of timber till it bursts into flame. Placing his tin of coffee at the edge of the fire, he goes back into the house for a few pieces of dried fish that will serve as his breakfast. He eats watching the sun slowly climb into the sky.
     Breakfast finished, he makes his way to the beach. Stepping over piles of broken wooden walls, he spies the brown teddy bear lying trapped in a low bush as he does every morning, its owner maybe dead, maybe moved away. As he passes it he gives the toy a benevolent nod of common circumstance. They both wait, wait for the uncertain return of their heart’s owner, both hope that the likely truth- for them- will not be so.
   Patrolling is calming and nerve wrecking at the same time. At least finding her beautiful body would put an end to it.  He could maybe move on, as they all like to say. He’s become accustomed now to his routine, though. He hates to admit it, feels guilty even to think the thought that he’s come to accept it somehow. It is a small contained life but a life nonetheless, something he was not sure he’d ever have again.
   By the time that he reaches the water’s edge, the sun has risen completely. A gull screams at him for disturbing his morning hunt. Looking out over the water, he sees something floating in the tide wash a few metres down, he quickens his pace towards the dark spot in the distance. As he nears, he knows that it is a body. He has seen so many he is nearly an expert.
     It is as he thought. He knows without turning it over that it is not her, though. This person is taller than Kade, the hands are not right. Relief washes over him. He pushes the body over and sees that it is a woman.  Her body bloated, just like the one in his dream. Three toes are missing, her chin nibbled off. She wears the remains of a beautiful dress. Even in its tattered state it is evident that money was spent by this woman to buy the dress. She walked through air conditioned shops, overseas perhaps, through store after store looking for a certain dress. A dress that would accent her almond eyes, for he could see, even in the state that she was in, that her eyes where beautiful, a feature to take pride in. And she brought the dress home, anxious to show her husband. She pranced in front of him, reminding him once again of her beauty and why he should be thankful she agreed to marry him. And he was thankful, as all men with beautiful wives are but was that thankfulness not also tinged with a bit of anger at her boastfulness? Or was he a kind man who knew she was just making a present of herself for him? He wondered these things as he looked at this body of a living woman long gone.
      The sweat poured from his face and down the middle of his back as he dug the grave. The steamy humidity of mid-morning pressed on him and the digging was slow going. But, he had decided to dig proper graves and, as his wife had often said, he was a perfectionist once he had found a goal.
    In the end, the sun sat on the edge of the horizon when he finally laid the shovel down and went for the body. He rolled her, face down, onto a washed up board and dragged it to the plot. At the side, he tipped the board and she fell to the bottom of the grave, lying almost perfectly on her back. He picked up the shovel and pushed soil into the hole mechanically, standing up straight when the task was finished. In the light from a full mooned night sky, he repeated a short Islamic prayer they’d memorized as small children. It was about the love of Allah and Allah’s love for a good wife. He thought that it was appropriate, though he believed none of it himself. After all that had happened, he was convinced that there was no god; that he was absolutely sure of.
    He had taken the wedding ring from her finger and the belt of the fancy dress for his box.  He pulled a smooth piece of broken timber from a nearby pile and, using a piece of charred wood from his fire, wrote 'gold ring with two small diamonds and yellow belt of an expensive dress' and he pushed the timber into the ground to act as a headstone. It was his system. Then he tied the ring inside of the belt. He would put them in the box and if ever her husband arrived he might go through the box and find the belt of her expensive dress and the wedding ring he gave her and then he would take him to her grave where he knew she would always be.
      When he was done, he sat down next to the grave exhausted and watched the moonlight shimmer on the calm surface of the deceitful ocean. He heard a noise behind him and turned. To his shock, he saw his wife standing in the distance; the moonlight glowed around her, her silky hair pulled back into a tidy braid that laid over her other shoulder down to her waist. He stood up and ran to her shouting, "Kade? Kade is that you? You have returned! You have returned!"
     He ran as fast as he could towards her until he was a few metres away, then he stopped short. His heart fell to the earth with a thud, and the aching sadness that he thought he had managed to escape from with his routine and his patrolling, with his box, came crashing into him and he felt his bones shatter in despair. A howl echoed down the coast as he fell to his knees. 
    "Sir, please do not cry. Please do not cry," a woman's voice said.   She could do nothing but speak the words. She could add no edge of kindness to ease his burden. No hand to rub a shoulder; only words was she able to offer. She needed him to stop, her ears were overflowing with the sound of people's pain and she could take no more.
    After some moments, his sadness put loosely back in its place, he looked up. "What do you want here? Why did you come here?" he snapped, not meaning to be so abrupt but having no choice in his state.
     “I wanted to check if my son has returned, “ she said ignoring his rudeness.
     He got up from his knees and looked this woman over. She was slightly older than him and he regretted having been short with her so the next words he spoke with gentle kindness. “I patrol this beach. Since everyone has gone I’ve buried thirteen that the sea has returned. I have a box, I can show you."

    She followed him away from the beach over the broken homes, past the stuck bear to his house. She waited outside while he moved the door to the side and entered. He returned after some minutes with a large metal trunk. Setting it near the fire, he pointed at a stool he had salvaged for her to sit on.
    "How old was your boy?" he asked.
  She rocked a moment then bent her head down and held it hard between her hands. She had found by doing this she could force the pain back inside and then she could think of her son without going insane. "He was ten years old." He watched but thought nothing. In such times acceptance becomes very wide.
    "There was a boy," he said opening the lid and letting it fall over onto the ground where it clanked to a stop. "He arrived two weeks ago, maybe it's three weeks now. I’m not sure; the days are a bit muddled. He wore a shoe, only one but if it’s him you’ll know it as it had something tied on it." He dug through the box and finally after a time, said, "Yes, I remember now, it had a bell." And he pulled the shoe out and handed it to the woman.
   She snatched it from his hand and pulled it close to her body. Falling to the ground, she rolled violently back and forth, sand sticking to her body, twigs catching in her long braid. "Budi, Budi!" she moaned in a deep, ripping voice.
    He sat quietly poking at the fire, closing up his box.   After a time, when the moon was already small and white, hidden half behind a drifting cloud, she sat up, still holding the shoe next to her heart. "Where did you take him?" she whispered.
     "He is with the others. Shall I show you now?"
      She stood up as her answer. They made their way to the makeshift cemetery where he had to read a few of the headstones before he found her son. "Here it is."
     "Thank you," she replied. "Now you can go and leave us."
    When he stepped away to go, she fell on top of the grave and he was surprised that her wailing began yet again. The limitlessness of her grief astounded him. Silently, he crept back to his house and fell asleep on his reed mat. 
   In the morning, before eating his breakfast or beginning his patrol he went to check on the woman. Her cries of Budi pushed above the roar of the excited ocean. She lay where he had left her the night before. Knowing that there was nothing that he could do, he turned around to begin his day.  By morning, a soft drizzle began. From his patrol he could see the woman still on the grave. He turned to check her every once and a while, but soon he forgot and went about his daily routine.
     And so it went for four days. He attempted to bring her food and water, but she was unaware of him. Her grief was opaque and sturdy, blocking off all around her. He told himself that she would know when it was time to come away from her son, so he left her.
   On the night of the fourth day, she came to stand next to where he sat on the beach. The sea was rough and the wind howled so he had wrapped himself in a torn curtain he had found. "I wonder what I should do now," she stated and he jumped at the sound where none should have been.
     Sitting next to him, she pulled her legs up and wrapped them with her arms, and then reaching behind she undid her braid and let her long hair fall around her to insulate herself from the wind. He looked at her and repeated what he knew he must, without conviction. "You must go from here and move on. Make a new life."
    Turning she looked at this strange patrolling man and laughed. A wild, abandoned laugh full of the uselessness of life, of love, of loss and the open pit of uncontrolled emotions that she was unable to cover politely with a lid, a laugh that nearly swallowed them up in the despair of it.
   When it was quiet again, he said in response, "Yes, I suppose you're right."
   And that was how their life began- amid the rubble and the sea, with bodies floating in and being buried. With hearts like mangled meat, they began, step by step.  It was a simple routine without a shred of contrived pretense. No, there was no room for that. They patrolled the beach and they collected the bits and pieces that described a life so that those who were searching might one day be found. And on a certain day a hand accidentally touched an arm, and then, later, a kiss opened a heart that had been shut tight with cement and chains, thinking only the awaited one had the key or the hammer to open it up again. But surprisingly, inside was found a small place, a growing place, which could make just enough room for one more.

No comments: