Whenever someone writes about the beginnings of an earthquake the story inevitably starts off with that lull before the event. Usually the story takes a humorous twist, because the experience only lasts a moment and then fades into a memory, and when the adrenaline drains away and the heart stops thumping, you’re left with this void that laughter does a good job of filling.[1. Japan Quake Map, A time-lapse map of the series of earthquakes just before and after the Great Sendai Earthquake of March 11, 2011. Author: Paul Nicholls, from Christchurch Earthquake Map, of The University of Canterbury, New Zealand.]
The Great Sendai Earthquake of March 11, 2011, at 2:46 p.m., in northeastern Japan, started the same way. Seven days ago I sat at the living room table, working away at my blog design, atypically outside of my studio, lounging back against the sofa, sipping Prince of Wales tea from a mug. My partner lay fast asleep on the floor in her room, still exhausted from a hard day working at the hospital the day before. The sun shone through the window from a cloudless blue sky, gray starlings twittered and chortled in the branches of a young gingko tree, and the street stood quiet, the elementary school children still not out, a day like any other.
When the first tremor came it felt almost gentle, a soft bumping against the floor that made the hanging potus plant sway in the window sill. It was followed by an impatient shudder that rattled the window glass and spoons in the sink. Then all of a sudden this titanic shrug shoved against the floor and walls and knocked my mug off the table. For a moment it subsided, a breathless moment, then it rammed into the building again and bucked, shaking, the way a dog shakes a mouse in it’s teeth. The movement generated an almost inaudible, faraway rumble, the same sound you hear when you press your fist flat against your ear and clench your fist hard, growing steadily louder and more indistinct.
I was already up, first unconsciously grabbing my insulin kit, then dashing to my partner’s room, shaking her awake. But she was a deep sleeper and just moaned, throwing her arm over her eyes. “Get up! Get up! Get up!” I insisted, still not quite scared yet, still having no idea. I pulled her by her arm and she reluctantly woke, mumbling, “It’s only an earthquake. Stop getting so excited.” But the earth kept heaving and the walls creaked and groaned and the window glass of her room skittered against the frame. “It’s big!” I said, louder. “Come on, get up!” She moaned again. A huge fist slammed into the floor, forcing it to buckle under me and I almost toppled over, caught myself. She was still slow, so, shouting now, I wrenched her to her feet and pulled her through the living room into the corridor. My partner walked to the bathroom door while I threw open the front door, and stopped it with the old, chewed up plastic door wedge. I glanced out at the sunny day outside, everything telling me to get out and fly the coop and get away from this pile of rock, but I stopped myself. To the bathroom. The bathroom. The bathroom. Where had I heard that it was safe there? Right. The bathroom. We stood in the doorframe as the walls seesawed back and forth on either side of us, dust spilling from small fissures that split along the corners of the wall, and my thoughts seemed to flutter in the darkness, without direction, frantic flashes of old lessons repeated over and over like a litany… don’t go outside… falling masonry… bathroom tight frame safe… why didn’t I buy those helmets?… I should have finished putting that emergency backpack together… oh no! My cameras!… but nothing coherent that could think my way out of whatever this huge thing was.
Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God…
A siren punctuated the air, howling over the city. Down the hallway another alarm, an insistent electric beeping, echoed down the hallways.
I kept glancing at the ceiling, wondering when it would crash down on us and crush our skulls. Outside I heard the sharp crack and then heavy thud of a concrete wall falling down. A woman in a neighboring apartment kept bawling over and over, “Yadaa! Yadaa! Yadaa! Yadaa! Yadaa!” (No! No! No! No! No!) in a high-pitched, keening voice. A baby’s thin wail started up in the apartment above us.
In Japanese mythology a gigantic catfish is said to reside beneath the islands. Whenever it rolls or turns it takes the island with it, a muscular shifting of bones. The catfish had started wildly awake, shuddered under the inhabitants, and broken the old sleep with violent fits. Only after the mud had clouded the depths and cloaked the catfish in darkness, did the catfish begin to settle down. The swaying began to die down, but not completely, just enough to get our wits together and think what to do. My partner got her coat and bag and some food ready, while I gathered, as quickly as I could, two packs with lightweight backpacking equipment.
One look into the living room convinced me that I wouldn’t be able to look for anything precious, even if I wanted to. All the dishes in the kitchen cabinets had slid out and crashed to the floor. The wine bottles lay smashed and bleeding amidst the dishes. The kitchen counter that I had built had shifted two meters toward the center of the living room. In my studio, the entire bookshelf system had collapsed into a huge mess, books scattered over everything, the shelves buried under boxes, the guitar broken in half, and no way to get in. I’d have to stick only to what we absolutely needed, if I could find it.
For the first time since I took a passionate interest in learning how to go backpacking and mountain climbing with an exceptionally low weight pack, I felt grateful for the hours and hours, over the years, poring over gear lists and putting together and using in the mountains, combinations of gear necessary for surviving outdoors in all kinds of conditions. WIthout even really thinking consciously, I stuffed two packs with what we needed, including a shelter, water filter, wood burning stove, special clothes, sleeping bags, headlamps, gloves, etc. I knew we’d be okay outside, even in the snow or heavy rain. My partner impatiently stood by the door, keeping back her thoughts that I was wasting time and looked ridiculous with my geeky obsession. Within five minutes I was ready and followed my partner out the front door, into the afternoon.
Trees still registered the ongoing shaking, like metronomes ticking down the heartbeats.
To be continued…