The Hills Above, the Sea Be­low

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - M.W. Lar­son

Iwate Pre­fec­ture, Ja­pan, March 11, 2011

When it started, Jun Akazaki was putting his café in or­der, the TV play­ing in the back­ground. He ran a cof­fee shop in the back of the first floor of his fam­ily’s build­ing, and his mother had a rice store out front. On the sec­ond floor, there was a Bud­dhist shrine for Jun’s late fa­ther and an of­fice out of which they op­er­ated a small heat­ing oil de­liv­ery ser­vice. On the third floor, his mother and he each had a bed­room, and his win­dow had a view of Ot­suchi’s shopping dis­trict with the town’s quiet port in the dis­tance. That af­ter­noon, his mother had in­vited over a few friends from her haiku po­etry cir­cle to eat, have cof­fee, and ad­mire the dis­play of dolls she’d put out for Girl’s Day. Ev­ery year for the Hi­na­mat­suri, she set out a five-step plat­form show­cas­ing fig­urines that rep­re­sented the Heian court of an­cient Ja­pan: the em­peror and em­press in flow­ing ki­monos at the top; court ladies pour­ing sake be­low; then the wise, gray-haired min­is­ters and the mu­si­cians clutch­ing minia­ture flutes and tiny taiko drums. Once ev­ery two years, she held a party and served bowls of white rice with azuki beans, fried tofu, and chi­rashizushi with shi­take mush­rooms in honor of the hol­i­day. Her guests were com­ing at four, but at a quar­ter to three, the ground gave a shud­der. When the first tremor hit, Jun froze, the trem­bling fix­ing him in place. His china cups and saucers quiv­ered on their shelves, and then the re­frig­er­a­tor and ta­bles and chairs and ev­ery piece of fur­ni­ture in his café—so silent be­fore—be­gan to rat­tle and shake. There’d been a small quake a cou­ple days be­fore but noth­ing like this; it was as if the earth it­self was growl­ing. Af­ter sev­eral min­utes, the vi­bra­tions started to die out, and in the quiet that fol­lowed, he knew—though the swell would prob­a­bly be a small one, at worst it might do some dam­age to the old, rust­ing fish­ing boats down at the docks—they should evac­u­ate. He started up the stairs to the sec­ond floor to his mother. Jun had spent nearly all of his life in Ot­suchi. He’d been born in 1964 and at­tended high school in neigh­bor­ing Ka­maishi City. He’d gone away to Sendai for col­lege, but af­ter earn­ing a de­gree in eco­nom­ics from To­hoku Gakuin Univer­sity, he’d come back and started Mu­min, his café. Grow­ing up, he’d heard about tsunamis that had dev­as­tated the re­gion in the past.

He found his mother in the room that held his fa­ther’s shrine, a room with tatami floor­ing where she of­ten hosted guests. Her dolls had fallen from the plat­form, and she was pick­ing them up. “What? Ev­ery­thing’s fine,” she said, look­ing at him. “We have to go,” he told her. “We’re not in any dan­ger here.” “A wave could come.” Jun moved around his mother, flicked off the space heater, and chased her down­stairs. The ini­tial quiet that had fol­lowed the quake was turn­ing to ca­coph­ony as the town stirred from its mid­day drowse: doors and win­dows slammed shut, cars sped through the streets, peo­ple shouted to be heard. On his way out, he turned off the heater on the first floor— a pre­cau­tion he would later be glad that he’d re­mem­bered—grabbed a jacket, took a ten-thou­sand-yen bill from the café’s reg­is­ter, and stuffed it in his pocket. Five min­utes had passed since the earth­quake. Out­side, ev­ery­thing was panic and flight. The road in front of their build­ing was jammed with cars as peo­ple tried to get to the evac­u­a­tion ar­eas. Jun and his mother owned a light truck with a five-hun­dred-liter tank mounted on the back for kerosene de­liv­er­ies. She went to the pas­sen­ger side of the cab, while he low­ered the metal shut­ters over their store­fronts as if he was just clos­ing shop for the day. He was about to get in the driver’s seat when he saw the old man from the house next door. He was stand­ing in the brisk air, watch­ing the ex­o­dus. “Let’s go,” Jun said, mo­tion­ing him over. “Come quick.” “My daugh­ter’s on her way. I’ll wait for her.” In his haste, Jun didn’t think to ar­gue with him. As with many of the peo­ple he saw in those fi­nal, con­fused min­utes, it would be the last time he ever laid eyes on his neigh­bor. Jun slid be­hind the truck’s wheel, twist­ing the key in the ig­ni­tion. He shifted into gear and pulled into the al­ley be­hind their place, which let out onto Route 45, the main route through town. Ev­ery­one was head­ing right to­ward the Shi­royama com­mu­nity cen­ter, a clus­ter of build­ings on a tall foothill in the mid­dle of Ot­suchi; it was only a few hun­dred yards away, but the road had be­come a traf­fic snarl. He turned left, took an­other left at the next stop­light, and then an­other af­ter the taxi garage two blocks down, nav­i­gat­ing a semi­cir­cle through the nar­row streets—a back way to the Kouganji tem­ple grounds. The otera lay at the bot­tom of the same rise that the com­mu­nity cen­ter stood atop—from their build­ing, not a quar­ter mile as the crow flies. The tem­ple’s ceme­tery cov­ered the hill be­hind the main hall, and a walk­way snaked up be­tween ter­raced lev­els of stone mon­u­ments. At the

top of the path, on the other side of a knee-high, im­i­ta­tion-wood fence, was the com­mu­nity cen­ter. They’d be out of dan­ger there. He parked by the tem­ple’s tow­er­ing, tile-roofed gate. Getting out of the truck, Jun and his mother went into the court­yard, which was al­ready crowded. He thought he might rec­og­nize some of the evac­uees if he had a moment, but while he’d ini­tially seen their flight as a pre­cau­tion, the at­mos­phere of frenzy was rais­ing his sense of alarm. His mother started up the hill, and he told her he’d be right be­hind. He watched her walk­ing to­ward the hill, to­ward the very grave­yard where his fa­ther and grand­par­ent’s bones were in­terred; she was the only par­ent he had left, and his love for her was im­mense. Years ago, he’d rec­on­ciled him­self to the life of a bach­e­lor. He would never marry, never start a fam­ily. In­stead, he had his band, Mu­mins, which he played in with four mid­dle-aged friends and which he had named af­ter his café; he had an ex-girl­friend, who worked at a sunakku bar in town, and from time to time, he’d go to her place for a few drinks, and they’d wind up in bed to­gether. These con­nec­tions sus­tained him. No one would have mis­taken Ot­suchi for a posh neigh­bor­hood in Tokyo, but here, he was con­tent. He stood out­side the tem­ple’s main hall where he made his of­fer­ing ev­ery New Year’s, look­ing on as the town’s el­derly headed for the kitchen build­ing off to the left. Many of them didn’t move well and were cold in the freez­ing March air as they shuf­fled be­tween the white pil­lars of the en­try­way. Still, tak­ing refuge there seemed in­sane. He spot­ted a man he knew from the neigh­bor­hood, and though he couldn’t re­mem­ber his name, Jun went to him, say­ing, “Wouldn’t it be bet­ter to get them up the hill?” He ges­tured to the grave­yard, but when he looked he didn’t see his mother. For­get­ting the man, he turned and started up the path—he needed to be sure she was safe be­fore any­thing else. He took the walk­way as fast as he could and was half­way up be­fore he saw her. Catch­ing up, he slowed to a walk, and to­gether they turned through the switch­backs, stop­ping to rest near the top of the trail. From there, the sounds of evac­u­a­tion were dis­tant, and the town spread out be­low them: traf­fic moved slowly on Route 45, which ran north to south, per­pen­dic­u­lar to the Ot­suchi River. Most of his neigh­bor­hood’s build­ings were bunched to­gether in the val­ley this course had carved out be­tween the hills, which widened where the flow met the bay, a blue-gray V cut­ting into the coast from the east. From the hill­side, through the clear, crisp air, the town looked so tran­quil. Around them, grave mark­ers cov­ered the hill­side. Each gran­ite haka had a pil­lar where a sur­name was carved; be­hind the mark­ers, tall

wooden boards painted with the names of in­di­vid­ual fam­ily mem­bers stood in stone re­cep­ta­cles. His fam­ily’s plot lay down near the base of the hill, be­hind the tem­ple’s main hall with its red-tile roof. As Jun and his mother caught their breath, the oth­ers who’d taken shel­ter on the hill be­gan call­ing for those be­low to come up. He added his voice to theirs, say­ing, “It’s safer up here.” Soon, many of the peo­ple stream­ing into the tem­ple grounds be­gan head­ing up the walk­way. Be­low, the Ogayu broth­ers, two monks whose fam­ily had run the tem­ple for twenty-six gen­er­a­tions, were still help­ing those who couldn’t make it up the hill into the tem­ple’s kitchen build­ing. Ryokan, the plump el­dest brother, was five years older than Jun, while Chimyou, his thin sib­ling, was a year younger. Their tem­ple was a des­ig­nated disaster evac­u­a­tion site, though it didn’t sit any higher than the Akazaki’s build­ing. Af­ter ten min­utes, ev­ery­one on the hill around Jun be­gan talking all at once, es­pe­cially the chil­dren—the schools had been sure to evac­u­ate, and it seemed there were more kids in the hills than adults. He and his mother squinted to­ward the bay along with ev­ery­one else. The sur­face of the ocean was striped with bands of white water, as surges raced to­ward Ot­suchi. The dis­tricts near­est the shore were al­ready flooded and black cubes floated in the cur­rent, which he presently re­al­ized were cars. From that point on, the higher the water rose, the more he felt he was be­ing sucked into a lu­cid night­mare. The tsunami didn’t take the form of one, huge, curl­ing wave, but was more like a very quick flood. The flow rushed into the cleft of the river first—the con­crete-lined banks filled with ashen water as if the chan­nel was a bowl set un­der a gush­ing tap. A surge rubbed out a dark line that spanned the river, wash­ing away the bridge that car­ried the Ya­mada lo­cal train line. Then the tsunami slammed the dis­tricts on the far side of the port, send­ing up plumes of dust like Hol­ly­wood spe­cial ef­fects. Water cas­caded over the river’s banks and rushed to­ward where Jun’s build­ing was. The sheet-metal roofs of the struc­tures near­est the coast shook and fell out of view as waves flat­tened them. Con­crete power poles snapped down like pieces of straw. Jun had thought a tsunami might come, but he’d never imag­ined any­thing like this. At first, the car­nage had been re­mote, muted, but as it ad­vanced, the roar of de­struc­tion rose all around him. The chil­dren’s ex­cla­ma­tions turned to screams, as if they weren’t sure if they should be thrilled or up­set. One boy cried, “I’ll never for­get you, fa­ther”; a girl said, “My home, my home”; while oth­ers sim­ply screamed, “Yabai!” How ter­ri­ble. A man above him said, “Look. Those peo­ple.” When Jun peered into the pat­tern of build­ings, he saw an in­ter­sec­tion where a car and a mo­tor-

cycle flew around a cor­ner—then came sev­eral peo­ple sprint­ing for their lives as a black flow of de­bris spilled into the street be­hind them. The ve­hi­cles out­ran the water, dis­ap­pear­ing be­hind a roofline. Most of those on foot made it out of sight, though the last few were swal­lowed by the waves. Through it all, Jun had kept an eye on his home. His fa­ther had over­seen the con­struc­tion of their build­ing in 1988, call­ing the con­trac­tors and look­ing over the plans him­self—it was his last re­main­ing ma­te­rial legacy. But, as Jun looked on, a veil of brown dust cov­ered his view. What he could see were birds: tens, maybe hun­dreds of crows and seag­ulls stirred from their perches by the chaos. They took flight, leav­ing Ot­suchi be­hind with such ease. He could also still see the tem­ple’s kitchen build­ing be­low. He watched the water crash into it, break­ing down the front door. In sec­onds, the flood­ing was up past the win­dows. Jun knew there were at least thirty peo­ple in­side, the Ogayu broth­ers and their wives and chil­dren among them. It was a mercy when a cloud of dust con­cealed this sight as well. In the three min­utes that he’d been stand­ing there, the tsunami had de­stroyed more than half of his home­town. Be­side him, his mother was cry­ing, and none of it felt real. He’d fled as a pre­cau­tion, but he’d been sure he would be back in his café be­fore long. It seemed that at any minute he might find him­self brew­ing a cup of cof­fee, talking with a cus­tomer about a strange dream of the world un­der­wa­ter and the town full of the dead and the liv­ing in a ceme­tery. And yet he re­mained on the hill­side, and each minute he stood there, re­al­ity di­verged fur­ther and fur­ther from this im­age. It took a while for the dust to dis­si­pate. When it did, Jun and his mother saw their build­ing was still stand­ing, the tops of the sec­ond­floor win­dows just vis­i­ble above the water. He couldn’t tell how badly it had been dam­aged, and many of the other struc­tures that were still up­right looked ru­ined: the town’s hos­pi­tal hadn’t col­lapsed but was bat­tered, like a beaten prize­fighter about to pitch over. He didn’t feel re­lief—the waves that had washed away the jum­ble of his home­town had swept away ev­ery­thing in­side him as well, leav­ing a gray numb­ness in its wake. Though hours seemed to pass be­fore the tsunami re­ceded, time was stretch­ing and com­press­ing—chang­ing with the speed and direction of the cur­rents as the flood­ing ebbed, then an­other surge pushed in­land. It was still light when some of the peo­ple on the hill de­cided to go down to search for sur­vivors. “I’m go­ing with them,” Jun told his mother.

At the base of the hill, the ground was buried in a layer of wreck­age: bro­ken cin­der blocks, dented propane tanks, over­turned re­frig­er­a­tors, crushed TV sets—all the things that make up houses, stores, fac­to­ries, but smashed to pieces and mixed to­gether as if the en­tire town had been pureed in a gi­ant blender and poured out. Jun and the other searchers climbed through the re­mains, and ev­ery step they took seemed a ven­ture that might land on a hid­den nail or piece of torn metal. Crawl­ing through what was left of Ot­suchi was ex­haust­ing, and he was ter­ri­fied that an­other wave would surge into the ru­ins and sweep him out to sea. He looked for his truck but couldn’t even pick out the place where he’d parked. With the other searchers, Jun looked through the tem­ple grounds where the el­derly had taken refuge. Chimyou was the first sur­vivor to emerge—jun saw the younger Ogayu brother claw­ing his way out of the rub­ble, strug­gling against tsunami sludge and de­bris like a des­per­ate swim­mer, his shaved-bald head rising out of the muck. He was wet, freez­ing, and cov­ered in black filth, but he could move on his own, and af­ter he’d been pointed in the right direction, he started for the walk­way up the hill. Af­ter a few min­utes, Jun heard a cry, al­most a whis­per. “Ta­sukete, ta­sukete.” Help, help. “Where? Where?” he asked, hur­ry­ing to­ward the voice. When Jun and the other searchers reached the sound, they be­gan dig­ging, toss­ing aside crushed Sheetrock, splin­tered boards, bro­ken tile, and tan­gled wire. At the bot­tom of the mess was an old woman, her face dark with mud and twisted in pain. He helped dig her out and pull her from the de­bris, and to­gether, they car­ried her up the hill. In their first try, they found four peo­ple. Tomoko Ogayu, the older monk’s wife, was mut­ter­ing the name of her fa­ther and son when they res­cued her. Jun also helped dis­cover an old man, who moaned as they car­ried him and died from the cold within min­utes. They worked in teams, and those who stayed on the rise shouted warn­ings when the waves surged back into town. Jun had lived next to the ocean all his life but had never been so afraid of it. They pulled their friends and neigh­bors from the wreck­age, but be­tween the freez­ing air and the sur­vivors’ soaked clothes, nearly half of those who made it up the hill died in the ceme­tery. They’d been search­ing over an hour when they heard Ryokan Ogayu call­ing, “Oi! Oi!” In the wash­ing ma­chine of the waves, he’d lost his glasses, bro­ken two ribs, and scraped up his back­side. He couldn’t move, and Jun watched a group of searchers move him onto a wet tatatmi mat. He was a big

man—though a Bud­dhist, he liked to drink and eat and al­ways ac­cepted the fish and lo­cal del­i­ca­cies the towns­peo­ple brought him. It took ten men to bear him up the walk­way to­ward his wife. The monk would be spared, though the waves had taken his son and his fa­ther’s body would never be found. Jun was still search­ing as it grew dark. In the dusk, he no­ticed a light shining into the sky in the dis­tance. He re­treated up the hill, and from there, he saw the fires. The blazes were mul­ti­ply­ing, weav­ing a burn­ing, orange pat­tern through the dark and send­ing up shad­owy rib­bons of smoke. Look­ing at the land­scape was like star­ing into the dy­ing em­bers in a wood stove: a flare might be a gas line ex­plod­ing in the dis­tance; a pul­sat­ing knot of heat might be a dry goods store. At some point, it had started to snow. Soon, he would walk with his mother to the top of the hill, climb over the fence, and retreat into the com­mu­nity cen­ter’s gym. They wouldn’t be able to sleep, and it would be days be­fore the sense of shock wore off; soon they’d need to start wor­ry­ing about where they’d rest at night, where they’d find their next meal. Even­tu­ally, they’d try to for­get what they’d seen, let it fade like the child­hood fear of night, un­til it was a hol­low mem­ory un­able to reach them other than to send a shiver down their backs. In the months and years to come, they’d put it be­hind them, be­cause they had to; be­cause they needed to keep mov­ing, keep liv­ing, let­ting one day follow the next. But in that moment, he and his mother looked on, trans­fixed by the fires spread­ing among the shred­ded de­bris. Nei­ther of them spoke as an arm of flame moved across the night, clos­ing in on their home.

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