September 2012

List of Survivors

M. looking  through a list of deaths on Wikipedia. Brain tumour. Cardiac arrest. Natural causes. Shooting. Heart attack. Cancer. Stroke. Cancer. Traffic accident. Kidney failure. Melanoma. Heart failure. Stabbing. Cancer. Suicide by hanging. After short illness. How soon do you perceive someone’s disappearance as loss? Tacked, taped to telephone poles (ones that are still standing), glued with rice paste to the granite wall of the police station, where their corners get torn off and the snow runs down them in clumps to the pavement, where it melts and runs away into sewers, joining the great underground rivers of waste and wastewater and refuse rushing into the ocean, the photographs and photocopies of photographs of missing people multiply. On the screen the list of famous dead people glows. American oboist, complications from cardiac arrest. Honduran television journalist, shot. The bodies of ten teachers float in the new rooms the ocean made for them. Their school’s footprint under water.

***

She was sitting when the earthquake happened, 2:46 in the afternoon, and the chair of its own accord popped gently into the air, casters spinning, almost as if it were a ballet dancer in a tightly controlled leap. The building shuddered. The ground below rippling. Three minutes, chair skating over the tiles. Then the window shaking, then quick steps on the floor above. Then nothing. All else normal. As if she’d only just come back from the kettle. Door still open. Small mug of black tea steaming on the desk. It was strange―not her first quake, but the first one when she’d been in a building this far off the ground―and right as it ended, the telephone rang. Just one ring and then nothing, a fault somewhere. She heard movements in the offices next door and across the hall―people under their desks. She sat in the chair, thinking almost nothing. Tucked her legs up, shoes shucked. Through the window she had seen the power lines sway and wiggle; from this far above, they looked like drawings come to life. Lines becoming snakes. Cars pulled over in orderly rows on the left hand side of the street.

Books fell and objects fell; tea spilled and the cup rolled a big semi-circle on the desk. M. held her knees and listened to her colleagues’ movements, as they texted their families and the hanging plants in the office across from hers swung back and forth. Outside, the road moved again. H., easy to startle, yelped and tripped. She listened to footsteps begin to pass. Shades being pulled down in offices.

Across the hall, K. opened his door, black coat flashing over his arms as he took the emergency evacuation disk from the wall. He was calm, no rush, ushering people out of their rooms. O., the head of archives,  walked past, also calm, her grey suede flats making a padding sound. For the first moments, it was quiet. All the doors in the hallway stood open.

M. sat in her office, the door ajar. She picked up the receiver. Too late. The call had been over for minutes. There were a few books on the floor; the others had stayed put. She had made a strong, wide elastic band around the shelf for just that, and was pleased to see that it had worked.

“M.,” K. said, sticking his head through her door. “We need to evacuate. You felt it. The radio says at least a seven. We should take this time to leave, before the aftershocks start.”

“You go.”

“We all have to go. That’s procedure. It might not be safe to stay here. There will be aftershocks, much closer. There could be another quake. We have to go.” Old buildings made of concrete and iron became accordions in big earthquakes.

Down the hallway, someone was turning off the oil heater in the common room. The familiar squeaking sound made M. think of earthquake drills in her childhood―in school, at home―and the dark blue checked apron her mother usually wore while doing chores. Strange, she thought. Here we are in the middle of something probably dangerous and the thing that’s most clear to me is the pattern on this apron I haven’t seen, or even thought about, for years.

“M..” K.’s voice was louder. “We have to go. You have to go. You don’t get to choose. You don’t get to do what you want!” On the doorframe, his hand was pale, almost grey at the knuckles. “You don’t get to do what you want this time.” Calmer. More like the K. in the hall. He didn’t step through the door. M., in the swivelchair, knees bunched up, shoes on the floor, toes curling around the edge of the seat, looking out the window. “M..”

The stairwell doors wedged open. In the dorms, the students underneath their desks, reenacting the duck-cover-hold drills from elementary school. She kicked her left foot out and used the desk to turn around to face the door.

“I’m not going out.” Sound of people going down the stairs, however many flights. Soft shoes, hard-soled shoes. Not the sounds of talking. K., looking back over his shoulder.

“Everyone else has left. You’ll be one of the last ones out―no one will look at you. No one will even care! Come on, we’ll do it together, we’ll go down and you can come to my family’s place.” K.’s mother and father still lived nearby, in a house with an apricot tree in the garden. M. looked at him.

“You don’t understand. I don’t want to leave. I want to stay here, alone. Nothing will happen. I’ll be fine. And in a couple days, when they open up the university again, I’ll be here. But I can’t go downstairs and I can’t walk around down there with you and everyone. I can’t. If I do it, I feel like my guts are going to explode. I can’t breathe. Just thinking about it makes my chest hurt.”

“All right,” said K.. “If you won’t go, you won’t go. But I can’t mark that you’ve left―I’ll have to put a non-evacuated mark on our floor’s token. They’ll come and check on you, and they’ll make you come down.” He looked at her. “I know you don’t like to go out when people are there, M.. But I’m worried to leave you here. You understand. It’s not normal. It’s probably not safe. There are reports coming from the coast―and the aftershocks are going to continue. Do you have food? Water?” M. rolled the bottom drawer of her desk open to show her kit: four litre-bottles of water. Dried fruit and fish in neat packages. Chocolate. Matches and candles and soap. Candy in a plastic box, tea bags, sugar. A roll of toilet paper in a blue-striped wrapper. Powdered soup packets tucked into an enamel cup. A small first-aid kit, its container gaudy red with a white cartoon nurse. She rolled it shut.

“I’ll be fine. Please don’t feel responsible. I have a blanket in the closet and I have my coat. I’m sure it will be normal again in a few days, and everyone will be back. If anything happens, I’ll send you a message somehow.”

“The networks won’t be working. They’ll be cut, or if they’re back on they’ll be busy. If you leave―if you don’t go home―come to my parents’ place. You remember how to get there? Or if you go somewhere else, leave a note on the door.”

She nodded. K. scanned the room. “Good thing you have that stuff.” Nodded again. “Don’t forget to let me know where you are,” he said.

“I won’t.”

“I’m going, then―” and his hand disappeared from the doorframe. Without a goodbye, M. turned back to the window.

She heard him flip the floor’s electrical breaker, and the screen on her desk went out. The office was very quiet. In the office across the hall, which belonged to a skinny girl with very big calves whose name M. had yet to learn despite having worked with her for several months, a potted fig tree nodded its leaves in some small wind.

***

That night, sirens in the streets. All afternoon house alarms had gone off, and car alarms.  Every parking place was jammed with deserted cars. She had seen people walking through campus and in the streets; they walked slowly, sometimes balancing with their arms as though they could still feel the ground moving. Campus had gradually become emptier, buildings’ doors left open to keep them from being jammed shut as foundations settled. She imagined the front door of the archives left open, and a slow wilderness growing in the space. First a gentle invasion of small plants, ivy, clovers, tiny pine seedlings. The wind would bring in dust and topsoil. Rain from the sprinkler system. Ponds in places where the foundation began to subside. Small frogs. Insects. She imagined the trilling.

Above the buildings, above the whole map of Japan, above the bubble-shaped globe she held in her mind, the frogs that Toyohiro Akiyama had brought to the Mir space station were floating. Permanently there in the past, which was forever the past. True. Safe. No longer waiting to happen in the unknowable future. The fact of those frogs in space made her smile.

The time between culms emerging from new ground and full-grown bamboo higher than her head was three months, but in the archive the growth could have already happened. In the hundred years between flowerings most of the history she could lay her hands on had slipped like small fish. The bamboo was there in the forest, eight feet tall, just out of bloom. Extinct magnolia trees with six petals and nine petals. A cedar tree. She watched it thicken and branch.

Deer walked north from Nara and entered the archives. As the building began to come apart, air and darkness crept in. She saw foxes there before she went to sleep.

***

In the morning, it was very quiet.

The square of light on the desk was inviting. It would slowly become a parallelogram, crossing the shelf of books and notebooks, the draping spider plant, the jar of pens, the coat hanging by the door, the door itself. Later that day she would begin to make the list, traveling to the unlit basement and back with folders of records, listening to the radio. Sometime in the future, the power would come back on and she would be able to find them easily, all over the internet, names she needed for the list.

On the tile floor, the light was almost white. She sat in her chair and listened to the announcements being made over a megaphone somewhere outside. In gray ink she began to record their names.