‘The Man with His Back to the Tsunami’

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THE MAN WITH HIS BACK TO THE TSUNAMI

BY JIRAPATT AUNGSUMALEE

TRANSLATED BY DYLAN J HARTMANN

EDITED BY THERESA SOMSRI

(RUNNER-UP BKKLIT TRANSLATION PRIZE FOR FICTION 2018)

The thirty-four-inch tv screen shows a solitary man standing on a deserted beach. Both his feet have disappeared under white foaming waves that reach up to his calves. He faces the brown sandy beach. Not one footprint in the sand remains. There is not one person on the beach. He is completely alone. The widescreen image shows the sea behind him and the shoreline ahead, almost in balanced alignment. The thin man stands still, not quite in the centre of the screen. White foaming waves at his ankles form a line that clearly separates the sea from the shore. Everything ahead of this solitary man seems empty and at peace but behind him a great, thick, heavy wave is rushing in, rolling like a dense white turbid mass over the sand to the shoreline. The power of the wave sweeps everything into the sea.

The dreadful immense wave moves steadily towards the solitary man. The sound recorded by the camera is quite low, perhaps because the camera was far away, but the solitary man seems like he knows something is about to happen. It is almost as if he is about to turn around to look but feels it might be too late to do anything. As the dense white turbid mass is about to crash into him, the image of this solitary man on the TV is cut and replaced by the same event at a different place and time.

‘Why did they have to cut it?’ A plump, middle-aged woman with fair complexion stops the video, pressing the remote. She is focused on the screen. Her finger holds the rewind button, and the images on the screen rewind quickly, stopping back at the solitary man with his back to the tsunami. She lets it play.

The clip of the solitary man plays again, and then again and again.

‘I really don’t understand,’ complains the woman. ‘Why did they have to cut out the pivotal scene? Why?’

Ten months have passed since the tsunami and the woman is still obsessed with watching this solitary man. She had her daughter record a National Geographic documentary about the tsunami that was shown on the Discovery Channel. But it is as if only the image of the solitary man interests her, ensnaring her with a thousand questions.

‘Aren’t you sick of it yet?’ her teenage daughter asks while sinking into the sofa beside her mother. ‘You’ve been watching this same scene for months!’

‘I want to know why he didn’t try to escape the wave.’ The mother continues staring at the screen. ‘Why is he just standing there?’

‘Who knows?’ The girl looks at her mother with concern. ‘He might have died.’

‘Like your brother,’ she says with a broken voice. Tears well up in her eyes as she stares at the solitary man on the TV screen. ‘My boy Tong might not have suffered, like this man.’

The girl reaches out and puts her hands around her mother’s waist. ‘How do you know that man didn’t suffer before he died, Mum?’

‘The wave was huge.’ The woman looks back at her daughter with tears running down her cheeks. ‘Nobody could’ve survived its strength.’

‘My brother wouldn’t have suffered.’

The mother smiles through her tears.

‘Tong’s death wasn’t caused by drowning.’

‘I know.’ The woman places the remote on the sofa cushion and starts softly stroking her daughter’s head. ‘Your father really shouldn’t have let Tong go to celebrate Christmas on Khao Lak.’

‘There’s nothing we can do about it.’

‘I still can’t put it to rest,’ the mother says, sobbing. ‘Tong had only been working for two years. Why did something like this have to happen?’

‘Mum…’ The girl’s eyes meet with her mother’s. ‘However you look at it, Tong’s gone. You still have Dad and me. Dad’s really worried about you, Mum.’

‘I’m okay, don’t worry about me.’ She holds her daughter’s hand firmly. ‘Please give me some time.’

‘It’s been ten months already…’ The girl’s voice trembles. ‘You haven’t gone anywhere Mum. You’re totally preoccupied with being in Tong’s room and all you do is sit here watching tsunami documentaries on repeat. It’s not helping anything.’

The woman clicks the remote, turning off the DVD player.

The image on the TV screen goes blank. She stands up from the sofa and goes to the large-screen TV that is fitted to the wall and turns it off. She walks to a small single bed in the corner of the room, positioned against the wall opposite the TV. A grey, almost black sheet is neatly fitted to the bed. Several books are placed on top of each other at the head of the bed. The small white Bose sound system shows 11:47 p.m. in bright green fluoro numbers on a black screen. A small blood-red silk fabric bag is tied up next to the sound system with a golden cord. The mother picks up the fabric bag and walks back to sit next to her daughter again.

The girl stares at her mother. She has the same type of bag in her own room. The mother sits next to her daughter and pulls on the cord. The soft fragrance of dried flowers floats up towards her. She picks up the lock of hair that has been firmly tied in a knot and places it on her lap. Her plump fingers pick up the tiny fingernail clippings and place them on her other palm. She stares at the pale white nail clippings for a long while, sitting still, then moves the lock of hair from her lap to her palm. Her other hand pours what was left in the fabric bag out onto her palm. A few dried petals fall from the opening of the bag, followed by a small yellowed tooth. She uses her finger to move the tooth back and forth and then picks up a thin nail clipping. She puts the nail down and picks up another thinner clipping to look at. Staring at the thin piece of nail held still, her breathing becomes heavy.

‘I cut Tong’s nails myself,’ she says softly. Her eyes became teary again. ‘This was the first time I cut Tong’s nails after he was born. I kept all ten of his fingernail clippings.’

The girl stares at her mother, sitting still, waiting.

‘I cut your nails too.’ The mother looks towards her daughter. Her tears begin to gently flow.

‘I know Mum.’ Her voice now hoarse.

‘It was the same with this lock of hair.’ The woman’s voice trembles. She places the nail clipping on her palm and softly touches the length of hair with her finger, cherishing the thought. ‘Your lock of hair was longer than Tong’s.’

‘OK…’ The girl nods. A teardrop falls to her lap while she looks down at the lock of hair on her mother’s palm.

‘Your baby tooth was smaller than Tong’s.’ The woman looks up at her daughter, with a tearful smile. ‘Keep good care of it, okay? This is all a part of your life.’

The girl nods, sobbing, and reaches out to cuddle her mother. Her face snuggles into her mother’s lap while the mother grasps the lock of hair, nail clippings and tooth, holding them above the girl’s head. Her other hand softly strokes her daughter’s head.

‘It’s getting late,’ the woman says after a long silence. ‘You can go back to your room. I’ll be okay. I just need some time to adjust. Not too much longer and I should be able to cope.’

The girl looks up from her mother’s lap, leaning against the sofa. ‘Mum, you need more rest otherwise you’ll get sick.’

‘Thanks…’ The mother nods and smiles. She lifts her hand to wipe away the tears from her cheek. ‘Have you printed the family photo with all four of us yet?’

‘I’ll collect it tomorrow from the shop in front of the university.’

‘Postcard size is big enough,’ the woman reminds her.

‘OK…’ The girl nods, using her arm to wipe away the tears. Then she gets up and walks out of room. She turns back to look at her mother one last time before closing the door.

The woman carefully collects the nail clippings, one by one, and places them in the bag. She picks up the lock of hair with great care and gently puts it into the bag. Finally, she picks up the single tooth and places it in there as well, followed by the dried petals. She then uses the same cord to tie up the bag and walks over to place it at the head of her son’s bed. She walks back over to the TV and turns it on, returns to the sofa and reaches for the remote at the back of the armrest. She clicks play on the DVD remote and leans back on the sofa. She still has some tears in her eyes as she re-focuses completely again on the screen.

The girl sees the TV screen and shakes her head slightly while softly closing the door.

The image on the screen replays, showing the solitary man standing on a deserted beach. Both his feet have disappeared under white foaming waves that reach up to his calves. He faces the brown sandy beach. Not one footprint in the sand remains. There is not one person on the beach. He is completely alone. The widescreen image shows the sea behind him and the shoreline ahead, almost in balanced alignment. The thin man stands still, not quite in the centre of the screen. White foaming waves at his ankles form a line that clearly separates the sea from the shore. Everything ahead of this solitary man seems empty and at peace but behind him a great, thick, heavy wave is rushing in, rolling like a dense white turbid mass over the sand to the shoreline. The power of the wave sweeps everything into the sea.

‘What are you thinking?’ the middle-aged woman yells to herself. Her eyes remain fixed on the TV screen as the clip continues to play, even though she knows all too well how it will end.