A story I wrote some time ago after watching a series of documentaries on the Japanese tsunami disaster.
It’s been a year since I stood on my front veranda and watched the sun rise over the tip of the peninsula. As a child, I used to love to watch the ocean turn the colours of the sun; my father, fancying himself an undiscovered artist, used to try and paint it. He never did finish those.
The sunrise from my cousin’s apartment isn’t nearly as impressive, and even if it were, I couldn’t watch it. I took a job in a local furniture store inside a mall, and by the time I roll up the shutters every morning, I’ve long since missed dawn.
Furniture sales are busy now that insurers are starting to pay out. It used to be that couples would come in and um and ah over a single item for hours before making a purchase. Now, people drive down up from the coast and furnish whole rooms mechanically as if they were buying ingredients for a cake they don’t really want to cook. They hand over their credit cards without even making eye contact with me. No one asks whether I have a husband or children anymore– they don’t dare.
I walk home from work. I make dinner for my cousin’s family and then we eat it watching the evening news. Sometimes afterwards I sit in front of the TV with my laptop across my knees, sometimes I don’t. I go to bed, I try to sleep. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t. When my alarm wakes me, I get up and walk to work.
In bed at night I can still feel the rocking of the ocean, like I am a boat adrift at sea pulled from shore to shore by the tide.
I’ve been doing this for a whole year now.
It’s spring when I return to my cousin’s apartment in the late evening with a bag of groceries. I collect her mail as I always do, but to my horror I find a letter addressed to me in the bundle of white envelopes.
I stare at it for a moment, running my eyes over the characters, hoping I have misread them. When I realise I haven’t, I feel sick.
Though I have been living with her for a year, today I can barely remember which floor to select in the lift. I fumble for a moment and then select the correct number, tucking the letter into my purse. It doesn’t fit properly.
“I’m home,” I call as I enter. My shoes slip easily off my stockings in the doorway.
My cousin looks up from behind her laptop and her sea of reference papers. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” she says automatically when she sees me, and then immediately looks horribly guilty.
I don’t say anything about it, but drop my purse and the other letters on the table and walk over to put the groceries away in the attached kitchen.
Making our meal, I accidentally cut myself. I quickly hold my finger under the open faucet, watching the water pour over my hand and swirl into the drain, pink with my blood. Everything reminds me of that letter. I can practically feel it radiating from my purse like a homing beacon.
It’s my cousin that answers the call. As she’s investigating her own mail, she sees the letter poking out of my purse. I watch her retrieve it almost in slow motion, turning it over in her hands.
When she looks up at me again I can tell she knows. It’s like she struggles for a moment, conflicted about what to do. I see her eyes move back to my purse, wondering if she should just put it back.
Instead, she slowly approaches me, holding the letter toward me with two hands as if she is presenting me with something important. “Are you going to open it?”
I look down at my bleeding finger. “I can’t,” I say, reasoning that I will stain it with blood.
She puts the letter down on the kitchen bench and hurries off to find a Band-Aid. When she returns, I let her blot my finger and then wrap the Band-Aid around it, knowing that when she’s finished I won’t be able to avoid the envelope on the bench in front of me.
We both look at it.
This time, it’s me that picks it up. I slip my quivering thumb under the seal and tear the envelope open, placing it beside me on the bench. Unfolding the letter inside, I can see the letterhead of Asahi Mutual Life Insurance. My father’s name and a reference number are printed in bold text and my throat tightens over a half-taken breath.
“Dear Ms. Yamahato,” It reads, “Asahi Mutual Insurance explores every avenue in searching for the beneficiaries of a claim. Through our research we have identified that while not registered, as the sole child of the listed you are our first priority to receive payment of the estate. Please fill out the attached document and attach three types of identification. Alternatively, you may call us to discuss our decision.”
Every word feels like I’m reading it from a gravestone. My throat so clenched I can’t breathe. For a moment I hear the sea rushing in my ears and I’m there again, reaching out for something to hold on to, my mouth filling with black water as I try to cry out.
My cousin takes the letter from me, putting a steadying hand on my shoulder. “It will be okay,” she says gently.
I grip her arm as if she could have saved me. I want to speak, but I’m hardly managing to even breathe.
She quietly fills out the document for me, going through my purse and photocopying some of my ID with her flashy printer. She doesn’t even get me to stamp it, retrieving my seal from inside my purse and doing it herself.
I feel both eternally thankful and completely pathetic, frozen against the kitchen bench like a statue.
“I’ll post it,” she tells me. “Tomorrow. Let me cook tonight.”
I do let her, even though I’m worried I’ll fall into that horrible cycle again where she’s caring for me like I’m a vegetable.
Several days later my mobile rings while I’m at work. It’s been so long since I’ve heard the ringtone that it takes me a moment to retrieve it and check it to see who it is. ‘Hidden Number’ scrolls across the display. I decided to answer it, anyway.
A perky voice greets me politely. “Is this Ms. Yamahato?”
“Yes,” I say, thinking that hearing that makes me sound like I’m my mother.
“I hope you are well,” she says, skilfully not phrasing the comment as a question. “I am from Asahi Mutual Insurance. I want to advise you we have received the papers for the claim on Mr. Yamahato’s estate.” I make a sound to acknowledge her as she continues, “However, I am sorry to inform you that due to recent events, to ensure the integrity of our claims we cannot issue payouts larger than ten million yen electronically.”
I don’t like where this conversation is headed, so I excuse myself from the showroom floor of the shop and slip into the small staff room. “What does that mean?” I ask her.
“We are asking beneficiaries of all claims originating from the Sendai area to present to a regional office to have their photo taken before they can collect the cheque.”
Even the thought of doing that made me ill.
“According to your address on our system, the closest location is our new office in Sendai City. Would you like me to email you the address and the times you can collect the cheque?” I make a noise that she must take to be ‘yes’, because she thanks me and terminates the call.
It takes me two days to tell my cousin. She listens to me say it, concern for me showing on her face. “I can drive you there,” she offers, even though the car is her brother’s. “Sato doesn’t use his car very much during the week.”
She’s been cooking for me and washing my clothes since the letter came, and the thought of being driven a hundred kilometres by her when her dissertation is nearly due is the final straw. “Do you think he’d lend me his car?”
She looks at me like I have two heads. “Of course,” she scoffs. “You don’t even need to ask.”
She’s right, but when she calls him to ask, he tells her that he’s going on a sales trip the following week and needs to use the car.
It’s a relief. “I suppose I’ll have to go another time.”
My cousin has other ideas. “It means you’ll need to go before the weekend.” It’s Thursday night.
Even though I haven’t even accepted, she’s already calling someone. When she greets that person, I guess that it’s my uncle. “Akie can’t come to work tomorrow,” she tells him with inflated gravitas. “She has to go to Sendai City.”
Just saying the word ‘Sendai’ has a silencing effect on people, and I can hear him pause for several seconds before telling her to wish me a good trip.
In the morning I do everything I normally do except this time, Sato knocks quietly on the door at sunrise. “It’s parked on the street,” he whispers, handing me the keys. “You’ve got maybe fifteen minutes before it’s parked illegally.”
He’s wearing a suit. “Do you need a lift to work?”
He shakes his head. “There’s nowhere to park near work. I always take the bus.” Glancing at the screen on his mobile, he makes a face. “…which I’ll miss if I don’t go right now.”
Before he says goodbye to me he just stands in the doorway, looking uncomfortable and like he wants to say something else. In the end he doesn’t, he just bows his head once to me and leaves.
It’s been a while since I’ve driven a car. After I get into it, I spend a few minutes trying to figure out how to adjust the seat and angle the mirrors in the dark. Only the seatbelt light reminds me that I’ve forgotten something as I indicate and pull away from the curb. I put my foot on the brake and reach around behind me to fasten it without thinking.
A truck that has to swerve around me blows his horn, a sound which bellows from the side of my car. The air displaced by the truck smacks into my car, shaking it. For a moment my heart pounds almost out of my chest and I expect to be spinning in a current, sucked into darkness as I open my mouth to scream and it fills with water.
When I pull out into the traffic, I am shaking so much I can barely turn the steering wheel.
The highway to Sendai leads east. As I drive along it, half-listening to mindless talkback radio, the sun lifts over the edge of the horizon.
Sendai City itself is almost unrecognisable. If not for my GPS, I’d have thought I was in the wrong place. The skyline is filled with cranes and shiny new buildings, and every bus is packed with people in suits on their way to work. I stop at traffic lights and look around at the people in other cars: there’s a woman drinking coffee, a man talking to someone on Bluetooth and some two children in deep concentration, each with a PS Vita.
My GPS takes me to the central business district, and there I find parking bay, equipped with a brand new metre that actually talks to me as I put money into it.
There are a couple of different buildings next to each other that could be the one I’m looking for. I squint upwards at the bright morning sun reflecting off the surface, trying to read the numbers. Following the rushing tide of bread-winners into one of the buildings, I double-check the correct level on my mobile before I get into the lift. It’s one of those lifts with mirrors, and I have to stare at myself after the doors close. I look so strange, wearing jeans and a patterned jumper when everyone else is in a suit. I am so out of place, but no one looks at me. Of course they wouldn’t: they work for a life insurance company. They know why I’m here.
The Asahi Mutual front office has beautiful plush carpet and lovely new designer furniture. Big windows face the coast and sunlight fills the whole room with warmth. I look out at the sea, a sight which is all at once familiar and yet foreign. It’s a beautiful deep blue, calm and serene.
I catch myself thinking that it was days like this my father would return home with the trawler simply full of writhing fish.
“May I help you?” The receptionist asks me.
I open my mouth and then close it again. Finally, I manage to say, “I’ve been told to come here and collect a cheque.”
Recognition passes over her eyes, but to her credit she remains on message. “Of course. Your name?”
“Akie Yamahato,” I tell her, and she takes a moment to look at her computer screen. When she finds my name, she gestures at the new furniture which extends around the corner of the office. “Please take a seat. A customer service officer will be with you shortly.”
I walk around the corner and find a man sitting opposite the wall, staring at a photo of two smiling children on his mobile. He hurriedly locks it and drops it in his pocket as I approach the waiting area, turning his face from me. I try not to look at him because I can see that he’s crying.
There’s a television screen at the end of the seating area, and I watch the news absently while I wait to be called.
The whole process turns out to be so anticlimactic. When the staff member calls me, she simply asks me to stamp my name a few times, show her some ID and then she takes my photo. It’s no less routine than if I were applying for a bank account.
In the end, she hands me an envelope. “This is your payment,” she says, not even for a second sounding anything but strictly professional. “After you have banked it, please allow three working days for it to clear.”
That seemed to be the end of the appointment. “Do I need to do anything else?”
She shakes her head. “No. That finalises the claims process.”
I fold the envelope and put it in my purse, thinking I will find a nearby branch of my bank and deposit it there.
My GPS has other ideas, though, since it clearly hasn’t been updated in the last year. First it leads me to a mall which now seems to be a new block of apartments. Then, it insists that I drive through a park which it thinks is a road. I pull over and yank it off the widow, silencing its instructions of, “Turn left, 10 metres,” by pushing the power button. I have eyes, I decide. I can simply look for a mall myself.
I’d driven through several blocks of tall buildings when they stop, giving way to a sea of single and double-story rooves.
Past them, I can see the Oshika Peninsula on the horizon, the sea glittering around it.
I make a split-second decision to drive out to it, since I’ve come this far. My heart is racing as I make the turnoff and I’m already regretting that I’ve decided to do it.
The road curls around behind Matsushima Bay, turning my car away from the sea. I force myself to sing along with the pop songs on the radio at least until I have passed through the largest towns. When I see the peninsula again, it’s much closer. From here, I know every turn of the road back to my town. I could drive it in my sleep.
As I head further out of the main towns, the radio reception begins to drop out. Rather than listen to intermittent buzzing, I opt to turn it off.
I know from here on is the point of no return. If I keep driving, it’s only a few minutes before I arrive at my town. I am in a state of indecision as to whether or not I should keep driving, so I do.
Nothing has changed about that road; it’s high above sea level and the same trees are still growing along the edges. Apart from the fact that Sato’s car is smaller than my father’s was, I can easily imagine that I’m just driving home from my end of week grocery run to the supermarket.
That’s why it’s so jarring when I round the corner to my town and there’s nothing there.
Even the debris and wreckage had been removed, leaving only the roads. Without any landmarks I still manage to reach my street. I park the car and get out.
All that remains of the houses are the western-style concrete foundations. Soft grass has started to grow around them, and spring has brought the wildflowers to bloom. In the trees on the hillside, I can hear birds singing as if it’s just any other day.
I stare at empty yard my house used to be in, waiting for tears. When they don’t come, I take my mobile out and snap a few pictures of what’s left. I walk ‘inside’ and stand in my room, and then my father’s room, and then the kitchen. There is still a broken pipe poking up from where the sink used to be. I take a photo of it. I have no idea what I’ll use the photos for, since there’s no chance I’ll post them.
It’s when I stand on the veranda and look out towards the sea that I recognise the view. At this time of year, with the sun high in the sky, I would lie outside with my school books spread open as I studied for exams. After the winter it was always wonderful to feel the sun on my skin. My father was always long gone by midday, somewhere out in the ocean. Looking out over it, it was like he could still be out there somewhere now.
When I was younger and at home alone I always used to worry that one day he might not come back. I know it’s stupid, but for a second, even now, I hope that he might.
There was really no trace of us anywhere in this yard, no signs that the two of us had ever lived there. Even the fig tree I’d been trying to coax into giving us fruit has been torn up. All that I have left of my childhood and my family is the cheque in my purse.
I walk the length of the whole town, trying to discern whose houses are whose. Down by the water my best friend’s house didn’t even retain the foundation. It had been covered with silt and must have been bulldozed away with the other wreckage. I was always so jealous of her for having her own jetty, but even that was gone, too.
I’d managed to save the SIM card from my old phone, and it still had the old message log saved on it. I took out my phone and tabbed down through them.
“Did you feel that??” I can almost hear her saying it. “Nah,” the next message reads, only showing her side of the conversation. “Mum says it only came up to the top of the jetty in 1983. You should probably tell your father to come back in, though. Did you answer question ‘b’ yet? I can’t figure it out.”
That was the last message I received from her. The next twenty messages were all from me.
There used to be a shrine on the tip of the peninsula which might still be there now. My father would always encourage me to visit it on my mother’s birthday, and I think he would have been happy to know that I’m finally visiting it for him.
I return to Sato’s car and drive out of my town, turning into the main road that leads toward the shrine. Every town on the way to there is levelled, with grass and shrubs growing over the debris. It’s like the land is trying to swallow up any signs of human life and pretend we’d never come.
Some of the rock face by the shrine has fallen away, so the road curves a little differently than I remember. I park the car in the brand new, freshly paved carpark and set off down the little path toward the shrine.
The shrubs on either side of the path are torn and tangled, bent in strange directions and all growing tiny new leaves which are bright green. All of the undergrowth looks brand new, as if it had just been planted in the garden of a freshly built house.
As I approach the shrine, I can see that it isn’t there. There’s a statue in its place. The statue has its back to me, and it’s not until I’m right up next to it that I can see what it is.
It’s a man, kneeling in surrender with his arms outstretched to the sea. His face and mouth are turned completely upside down as he silently cries out in tormented, agonished grief.
It’s the naked anguish on his face that drives a knife into my heart and forces the air out of my lungs.
I can’t bear to look at it, but I do. And every time I do, it twists the knife in my chest again and again. I turn away from it, putting a hand over my mouth. I can hardly breathe. His face is the perfect likeness of the feeling I used to have every morning when I woke up and realised I wasn’t in my house and my father wasn’t coming home. In even the memory of the statue’s expression, I can still hear the wailing in the hospital and the man I saw crying out and throwing his arms around the bloated corpse of a woman.
It was the face of empty prams left abandoned in the debris, and the face of a dog I saw laying patiently in the rubble of a house waiting for his master to return.
I can’t bear it, but I can’t move. I am frozen, standing here with this statue as I silently choke on tears for everyone I have lost.
It’s some time before I hear footsteps behind me. I can hear an old couple talking, but I can’t turn to acknowledge them. I can’t even leave and let them grieve by themselves. I am rooted to the ground like the tangled shrubs.
I feel a hand on my shoulder. “My dear, are you alright?” an old woman’s voice asks.
I can’t answer. I can’t even look at her.
She doesn’t ask me to. Instead, she pats me gently and says, “Look how the trees have grown since they were torn up. Isn’t it amazing how they recover and grow new leaves?”
I know what she’s trying to say, but I can’t respond.
The couple keep a silent vigil against the stone fence that borders the edge of the rock face, holding each other’s hands as they gaze out to the sea. It’s lovely to see a couple still together, I think. They came through it together and they’re both still alive.
The shadows are getting longer when they finally move from the fence, helping each other descend the gentle slope. The woman comes over to me again, offering me a sweet. I managed to shake my head slightly, but she insists in a very grandmotherly way until I give up and accept it from her.
The muscles in my mouth are stiff from being clenched, so swirling it around in my mouth feels strange.
“Did you lose someone dear to you?” she asks me.
She’s the first person to ask me that question without looking as if she wants to run away.
I nod, pushing the sweet to the side of my mouth with difficulty and saying, “My father.” That wasn’t the whole truth, though. “Everyone, really.”
She shares a private look with her husband. “Us, too,” she says. “Except each other.” She looks a little playful for a second. “I think God just wanted to make sure we’d keep our wedding vows!” I smile politely, but I can’t find it in me to laugh. She continues anyway, speaking so easily. “Will you rebuild?”
I think about the empty town. I can’t imagine what there could be left for me, here. “Will you?” I ask, instead of answering myself.
“We’ve lived here for nearly eighty years,” she says. “My husband fished here for fifty years. We belong here.”
I look out toward the sea. It’s so calm now. It seems like a lie, like a big, horrible nightmare that this place was pummelled by water only a year ago. No one could look at that sea and think that it could destroy whole villages and cities.
I can’t believe she’s so calm about it. “Aren’t you worried it will happen again?”
She chuckles. It’s a sound I wasn’t expecting to hear and I’m not sure what to make of it. “Of course,” she says. “There are many things I worry about. I worry about them, and I keep living.”
Before the couple leave, they give me their contact details. They’re on a beautiful little card, with their names in traditional calligraphy and a motif of the sun rising over the sea. I put it somewhere safe in my purse and look back at the statue.
It still aches to look at its face, but this time I am able to bear it. I notice a plaque fixed to the rock pedestal it’s mounted on. It has a large number I’ve heard many times on it, and underneath it reads,
“ To those who trusted the sea,
Who were nourished by her,
Now with empty beds and aching hearts,
May you trust her again. ”
I spend the rest of the daylight quietly there, watching boats sailing to and from the port in the nearby bay. I used to do this when I was little, squinting and trying to decide if I could see my father’s.
As the sun sets and the shadow of the statue reaches over the edge of the cliff, I realise I should probably go back home to my cousin’s before she gets worried. Sato was also probably beginning to worry that I’d driven his car off the edge of one of these cliffs.
I’ve been living with them for long enough, I think.
I take the envelope out of my purse and open it, looking at the cheque. There are so many zeros I have to actually count them to figure out how much money the cheque is for.
With the sun setting behind me, I stand looking out over the backdrop of my childhood.
I wonder how much it costs to build a house.