Flowers in Empty Places
It’s not that I forget, but after a while the tragedy of it all starts to slip between heartbeats. There are building foundations laying empty at my feet. Shattered glass and bits of lives glint all around in the dirt and weeds between them, but I’m on my way to work. To my right, painted flower petals on pieces of broken pottery blend into the real flowers growing out of the ruins of someone’s bathtub.
At the volunteer center I laugh with the team of young people who’ve come to work with us for the week. As I show them what to load into the vans, we talk about how to act with the survivors we’re going to meet. They hardly blink as they listen, all strung-taught excitement and solemnness. It’s sweet to see, but I realize I can’t remember their names. Since the first year, the flow of volunteers has slowed to a trickle, but there have been so many of them. I can’t seem to keep the current names floating on the surface anymore.
It’s a cold day, fall closing in from the ocean. I shiver as we make our way through the straight, utilitarian rows of the temporary housing complex to the meeting room. There’s a cluster of curly gray heads waiting for us inside. I take a seat next to one of the old women, and she smiles at me, her head nodding in a polite little bow. I introduce myself in my awkward Japanese, and she gives me her name in return. It slips down to pool with the rest before I can remember to hold on to it. She tells me she’s from a town called Rikuzen-takata. Her old eyes are small between folds of sun and sea-salt worn skin. There’s a deepness in them though, filled with black water and bones when she says the name of that place. She blinks them back down and smiles.
I don’t manage to follow the conversation for long. The elderly are always hard to understand, with thick, countryside accents and archaic vocabulary. As she tells me a story, her cloudy eyes distant, mine wander to craft projects tacked to the wall behind her. Next to them are pictures of school buildings behind crowds of smiling children, and flashing festival colors--snapshots of daily life before the tsunami came. High in a corner above them, a wide, photo-edited smile beams down from an autographed poster of some obscure singer. Under her name and the white gleam of her teeth, she’d written “you can do it!” in a cheerful, looping scrawl.
There’s the skeleton of a sports gym still standing in Rikuzen-takata. A memorial, ringed in wilting flowers, mourns silently outside the front doors. The building had been a designated evacuation center, but it wasn’t far enough from the ocean. Gaping holes with jagged, twisted edges mar the walls, and inky mud covers everything. It stains the jumbles of clothes, books and photographs pushed in piles against the walls. There’s a car, half-buried and crumpled, in the middle of the court, surrounded by an audience of empty, mud-encrusted seats. Survivors say the water rose so high inside, people were holding onto the rafters in the ceiling.
I’ve heard it was the younger people who were caught in evacuation centers. The older generations ran to the mountains instead. From the largest hole in the stadium wall, where the car was swept inside, you can see a school, listing and broken against the hills. It wasn’t back far enough either. I don’t know if that’s why we meet so many elderly people in these places, and so few of their children and grandchildren. We’re not supposed to ask though. As the woman beside me finishes her story, I re-fill her coffee cup instead, counting the minutes of the passing hour until it’s time to pack everything back into the van and move on.
We take the team to another town, tromping over its bones to a furrow in the ground that used to be a train station. The team gathers on the old platform, cameras clicking, voices a little hushed in the broken emptiness of the place. I find myself down in the furrow between the platforms, dodging the spiders that have made the place their home. Small and bright, flowers at my feet catch my eye. Kneeling down, I wipe the dirt away from painted red petals and sunshine-yellow swirls as they trace the edge of a shattered bowl. I set it back down with a strange reverence, the flowers tilted up toward the gray sky. There are blue flowers, half buried a few steps away, and beyond them the curving tail of a tiny dragon hidden in the weeds. They seem too precious to leave, but there are far too many of them to carry away in my pockets. I pick up one sunny piece and steel myself to leave the rest. When I stand up, there’s an aching hollow place my chest. I tighten my grip on the jagged edges in my palm until I can feel my heartbeat against them.
Just a not about the pictures: These are mostly representational. For example, the woman in the picture below the
description of the woman from RikuzenTakata is not the same woman. Also, photo credit to Deborah Quek, The Butterfly Project (Burton Sue) and Lina Oshio's iphone.