death is in the air – iraq and afghanistan as usual, boston in a rare turn of events, serbia with a grim take on america. so i thought i’d share an episode from way back – mortality equally meaningless, except perpetuated by nature and not man.
in may 2011, i made one of my first trips to the disaster areas in tohoku. the volunteer leader told us that our job was to clear the tsunami sludge and debris from the destroyed areas for incineration. along the way, if we were to find anything that had nostalgic value (teddy bears, photo albums, the like), or anything personal (identity cards, passports, wallets, money), or anything that looked like human remains, we were to alert higher authorities. so we were paired off, equipped with shovels, sacks and wheelbarrows, and sent on our ways.
my buddy’s a university student at meiji gakuin, who’s been there and done that twice before – an old hand, expert with the shovel. we have two jobs – one opens a sack and ties it up after it’s filled; the other shovels the shit into the sack. so my friend says in passing – the shovel’s hard work, but with the sack, your face is that much closer to the sludge. clearly he’s a shovel person; i get his hint.
the first drain we come across – the cover is literally plastered to the drain edges. it’s the sludge, all organic waste and petrochemicals, and it’s caked everything up. i get the crowbar and prise the shit open, and in the gloom that is waist-high sludge in a very deep drain i see something clearly semispherical bobbing on the surface.
i’m the one to stutter first.
‘shit, dude, what is that?’
‘dunno.’ my friend stares, and then steps back – normal tsunami sludge has a foul stench, all gasoline and decomposed fish, but this one is particularly pungent. ‘it’s round, ainnit?’
‘yeah, duh.’ we look at each other. we have the same thoughts, but we’re not budging. ‘you going in?’
‘yeah. but you gotta go in too. i can’t possibly raise the shovel that high, won’t be able to reach your sack.’
‘bloody hell.’ i prise open the next drain cover, making space for both of us in that ditch; we both go in.
he’s looking at me. through the mask and under the helmet, i’m wondering whether i should breathe through my mouth or my nose. death by impurities, or death by stench? then i realise he’s got the first load of sludge stacked thirty centimeters high on his shovel. two months after the tsunami, and that shit’s multi-layered, like a ghastly kueh lapis.
i open my sack, he sticks it in, some shit gets dislodged, i get gunk on my goggles and face. at least my eyes are protected. in due course my face breaks out in rashes. no shower facilities in the disaster area, and so i spend the night smothered under talcum powder.
but back to the drain, our noses puckered, our words economical. ‘you’re not getting the round thing.’
‘yeah. was waiting for you to get ready.’ he waves his shovel. ‘it goes into the sack. like everything else. right?’
at that time (may), and in that area (ishinomaki), tsunami debris did not need to be separated into combustible and incombustible rubbish – i think.
‘yeah. into the sack.’ my legs plod into a dynamic, defensive position; my hands with the opened sack thrust as far as possible in front of me, my head reared way back. ‘scoop it.’
he goes for the kill. that instant i have gruesome thoughts of a decapitated head; nothing else could have been so round. it seemed as if the universe had lined up a joke for us, that we should have opened our drain cover precisely where that unverifiable object should have been, while there were kilometers upon kilometers of uncleared drains waiting for us. and that head, recalcitrant, would have escaped all the conscientious efforts of the self-defence force but not a pair of unfortunate twenty-somethings. but it wasn’t a head. why would there have been a head and nothing else? some locals told me afterwards that the bodies of victims (god rest their souls), if they were not immolated by subsequent gas explosions, were somewhat recognisable neck-up – the first instinct of man is to keep the head above water. not to say that their expressions weren’t ghastly. i gave a lift to a kamaishi resident to morioka on a day of a large aftershock, and his exact words were ‘minna no kao ga oni datta‘ (everyone’s faces looked like ogres) – but, if you talk not of expression but of injury, the undercurrent mostly destroyed everything torso down. so you hear locals recognizing their deceased relatives by virtue of the shirt collars that remained (the collar being the strongest part of the garment).
but back to the topic – no, not a head. the object turns out to be too big for a shovel to handle, and my friend can’t help but flip it. turns out it’s a pot of left-over rice from march 11th, and it’s positively brimming with maggots, worms and whatever else decomposes stuff. as with the time i helped clear out the bento shop at kamaishi, two months later and in the heat of summer, with the sludge still there as it was from four months back, (red flags in the shop beside indicating a body had been found in the wreckage there; the locals saying ‘the lady was more than eighty years old, she couldn’t run’), the smell is unforgettable. you start thinking to yourself, shit, this is the smell of whatever happens when we meet our end, if it’s communal and violent, and you start retching because you can’t help it – you can be inured to the fact but not its gradations, the way it instructs not only what but how and on top of that how many, and the way it sticks to your waterproof gear and boots, inciting you to a decision three days later in the sanctity of civilization between destroying the shit or destroying your washing machine in the act of reckless salvation; and then before you know it, hand on the sack and eye on the gunk, you’re like, hey, no appetite. but fuck appetite. more time to get this gunk out of the way.
and so it goes, and so it bloody goes. humans devise ugly ways to kill, but you can’t beat nature’s playbook; she’s got the ugly ways to die, and she’s got it since we found ourselves in this rut. and one day in a disaster area and you ask yourself for what raise your hand against man, our world is a gordian knot of loose ends, but you come back to that concerted sterility that is the nearest civilisation and you’re as dumb as those stone monuments from eighty years back, along the same sanriku tohoku coast devastated two years before, with inscriptions like don’t build your houses past this point, the tsunami of 1933 destroyed everything. and here we are, those that have seen neither killing nor death, but wanting to spread the gospel of humanity, simply because we’ve unearthed a pot of rice, or a photo album (of families visiting the merlion), or a rather whole winnie the pooh plushie. nature will take us; why take each other? we’re better than this. we have to be better than this.