October 16, 2011

NOTHING BUT THE ROOF UNDER HIS HEAD:

The Man Who Sailed His House: Two days after the Japanese tsunami, after the waves had left their destruction, as rescue workers searched the ruins, news came of an almost surreal survival: Miles out at sea, a man was found, alone, riding on nothing but the roof of his house. Michael Paterniti tells his astonishing tale (Michael Paterniti, October 2011, GQ)

Now the temperature drops--and as it does, your senses return. You sit, holding yourself in a tight ball, hands pulling knees to chest. The key is not to sleep. You remember this from a famous Japanese adventurer you once saw on television. Do not sleep. Also: Do not think of Yuko tumbling beneath. Do not think of pigeons. What's surprising is how strong your mind is, how well you forget, how childlike your wonder remains. You've maintained your optimism--an odd word given what's befallen you, but that's what it is, an openness to being bemused or astonished. You've tapped into some hidden spring of endurance. You're open to little miracles now, so let one come.

The blue light appears from the depths, glimmering up through the inky water. In your ball on the roof, you find yourself surrounded, inexplicably bathed by luminescence. You squint but can't identify the source. Might these be the spirits of the dead, meant to convey a message of hope or allegiance rather than surrender? That's how you take it, at least. And if a picture could be made of this moment, then the world would see you--the man named Hiromitsu--seated in serene meditation, staring in awe at the blue light that comes from the abyss, then laughing out loud.

At sunrise, the scene resolves itself: the black water, the blue sky, a thin band of land on the far horizon. Soon you will see an explosion, in the vicinity of the nuclear-power plant, a loud blast and then a rust-colored cloud rising ominously, in atomic layers. Do not look back. You notice a fishing rod floating alongside you, one you glimpsed the night before, and realize that you're traveling in a slow-moving whirlpool of sorts, the same relics recurring, new ones entering the gyre and orbiting the roof as it gets sucked out farther and farther.

Yesterday seems long ago, and today, you tell yourself, must be the day of your rescue--you're willing it so. The helicopters come close, circling for survivors, and the dozen times you hear one, you climb to your feet, scream and wave. There are boats in the distance, cutters and smaller lifeboats trolling, and for those, you holler even louder, though time after time they turn back before reaching your debris field, your little ring of ocean. Is it that they don't believe anyone could be this far out?

In between, you fish more objects, including a futon and blankets, which you lay out in the sun to dry. You write in the margin of the comic book. I just want to report that I am still alive on the twelfth and was with my wife, Yuko, yesterday. She was born January 12 of Showa 26. You fold the page, place it in your empty can, and ripping more string from the mat, tighten it across your chest, adding one more testimonial to your body.

So the hours linger, the sun beats, rust-colored smoke rises, and now you can feel your thirst clawing. Drink the second energy drink in slow, intermittent sips. When it's gone, you're gripped by an animal urge that nearly upends the disciplined regimen you've set for yourself. You fight the need to drink that third energy drink, hand fluttering for the holster--no, save it for tomorrow, if luck brings you that far. This is when you think to drink your pee. You collect it in your hands three times and drink--warm but not terrible.
There's another problem, too: The wood of the roof has become waterlogged, weak and rotten. And from time to time a low rumble comes up from the deep, aftershocks. At first the sound is startling but then you only worry about the waves. Has a swell begun to rise? What approaches from the east? You now have waking dreams, hallucinations: You're convinced you see a body coming near, and start screaming--Help me! But then it's a tree trunk. In another you see a huge wave hurtling toward the roof and imagine turning into a tree to save yourself. But just as you think to stand and hang your arms like branches, you stop yourself for fear the roof will tip.

One other thing: You're not uninjured after all. A nerve at the top of your palm has been cut--how you're not sure--but now it radiates sharp pain. And your eyes have begun to swell shut. You opened them underwater, now some infection blurs your sight. Still you sit, knees drawn up, white hard hat in place for safety. Safety is important, you know that. You work in a lumberyard. You live in a village by the sea with your parents and wife, Yuko. You will be rescued soon, by concentrating on the sounds, engines and rotors and waves. On a scrap of wood, you write with the red marker--SOS--and if any machine approaches, even remotely, you stand and yell and wave at it. Please.

You muster the energy to sing again, same school song, second verse in your now hoarse tenor (Help me!):

We had a day in tears.
We had a day in jealousy.
We will fondly remember those days.
Ah, we are third-year high school students.
Once you take her hand at folk dancing,
Her black hair smells sweet.

A fat statuette of Daikoku, a god of fortune, bobs by, the round belly and happy demeanor, the rice barrels at his feet that signify plenty, plucked from someone's home and delivered here to you, a very good omen. His name translates as the "god of great darkness," and yet, as he wields a mallet, his broad smile conveys contentment. You think to bring him aboard, but you no longer trust the roof, nor your ability to balance on it. So you allow a small acknowledgment of the moment: one more laugh in diminishing light, the last of your good cheer.

Posted by at October 16, 2011 8:56 AM
  

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