This was originally published at The Rumpus on May 15, 2019.
We were not unreasonable, the people of Lowcountry. We knew storms passed along the coast. We knew their names and welcomed them like old friends. Come summers, rain sheeted the land and made the marshes swell, flooded the wheat fields and inundated all the neat rows of cabbage. We understood a summer storm bore certain losses. Drowned frogs. Mosquito uprisings. Weeks of muddy water. These things, we could recover from. But this? We had no way to know.
We gathered in the basement of the community church, nine hundred of us fanning ourselves in the stale, humid air. Mothers bounced fussy babies on their laps while children invented games and elders sat in a circle of aluminum folding chairs, murmuring about what had to be done. Margaret Tillers said we should call for aid. She had tremors in her hands that made her suggestion feel especially urgent. Henry Jeffords disagreed, insisting we couldn’t trust the government to help. Willie Morgan scratched his rough, gray beard. We don’t have a choice, he said. We don’t have a choice.
We dug the old black Sony radio out of the storage closet, changed its batteries, and toyed with its dial until we reached 1650 kHz, the folks at Fort Jackson. Through miles of static, we told them we were survivors of the storm and needed their assistance. They called in the National Guard, whom we were told would reach us once the water had receded enough for them to get through.
We went up in shifts to check on the conditions outside. The church windows had been smashed in by heavy winds, leaves and dead grass pressed like flowers to the tiles. The rugs were rain-soaked and mildewing fast. There was no sign of the National Guard all evening and into the late night. We gathered again in the basement, surrendered the stiff sleeping pads to the youngest ones and resigned ourselves to the floor.
In the morning, those of us who woke up at dawn or had not slept at all were the first to see the ATVs that rolled through the water like tanks. They appeared on the horizon before the sun, their slow, fat tires churning flood-water as they moved through the swamps the storm had made of our roads.
Big men in camo shorts and tangerine lifejackets waded through to the church entrance, where they hoisted the children onto their broad backs and waded back out to the waiting trucks and rowboats. Once the children and elders were out, their boats turned in the water and started back toward the city. Then the mothers and other women went, careful to manage their grins in the arms of the big men as their husbands looked on from the entryway. The men were the last to be cleared out, pulled onto the enormous ATVs. More than one of us disregarded the old, biblical advice not to look back as we left a ruined place. We risked becoming salt to see the land one last time. Some of us wept.
We were taken into Charleston as evacuees from Lowcountry. In the documents we had to review and the stories that were written about us in the news, the word evacuees began to bleed into refugees. The children were curious about what it all meant. We tried to explain our new names. Refugees were people who’d had everything but their lives taken from them, who had been made to start new lives somewhere else. Evacuees were people who had been brought from absence to abundance, from hazard to safety, people whose lives had been saved. But this was an imperfect understanding. Most nights, we felt as though the life had gone out of us, too, along with the other things the storm had swept away. All the while, the city seemed untouched. The sky was a painful blue. We lived in the temporary housing the city government had granted us, these strange, sleek apartments that weren’t nearly as warm as the places some of us had built from wood cut by our own hands.
One afternoon, about three weeks after we arrived in Charleston, those of us who sat by the big windows in our lonely apartments watched the thundercloud ease its way over the quarter where most of us lived now. There were others in the sky that day, but this one, a stacked and low-hanging cumulonimbus, puffed and dark like our children’s hair, was massive and familiar.
Windows slid open and cries of recognition went up. Some of us wrung our hands, which ached with memory. The children quieted their playing. We seethed and tore through our strange, new homes for knives.
We poured out of our buildings and into the street, swinging weapons and dragging long yards of rope behind us. Those of us who had worked on the boats for the Ports Authority in our previous lives helped to fashion a knot that would bring the cloud down. As we worked the rope, some grew impatient and began hurling knives at the sky, watching with satisfaction as the blades pierced the vapor and sank back down to earth. When enough of us had gathered to hold the long tail of the lasso we’d made, one of the elders, who’d been a cattle rancher out in Laurens County for more years than most of us had been alive, took the knotted end and masterfully brought it up to a spin in the air.
The lasso was a gaping mouth that opened wide enough, we hoped, to swallow the cloud. The first few tosses at the thunderhead yielded nothing but air. We moved from side to side, searching for a good spot. When the lasso went up in the air the last time, we knew that was the one. The mouth caught on a dark, low-hanging leg of the cloud and cinched around it tight. We pulled the cloud down and wrangled the rest of it into other mouths we had fashioned along the rest of the rope.
We dragged the raincloud through the city to the nearest precinct in the ward. A gruff, red-faced officer took notes as we described our grievances and outlined the cloud’s crimes. Yes, we wanted to press charges. Yes, we wanted a trial. More than these things, we wanted someone to blame. Someone to return our homes to us, to undrown our lost children and drain the mudwater that now sat, stagnant, in their lungs.
The raincloud was taken into custody. We returned home, parading through the city with the lasso that had brought the cloud to justice. We slept beautifully that night, eager to wake up the next morning or the morning after to some news of the trial we believed would soon come. But as the days passed, our old sadness returned and settled inside us. The world looked unchanged from one morning to the next, the sky in the city once again beaming a terrible blue.
We would learn later in a note of apology from the city that, in the days following its arrest, the raincloud had separated into smaller tufts of cumulonimbus, then had further dissipated into streaks of cirrostratus and, finally, had become tendrils of fog thin enough to seep out around the prison cell bars.
When the guards had come to check on the cloud, they found the bed in the cell soaked through and pools of water on the ground. As though the room had housed in it a small, contained storm.
Early Friday morning, Risa and Adrian were dispatched out to Nagtabon to begin the report on damage sustained after a minor earthquake had rattled the islands the night before. They parked the van in the shade of trees near the ports and walked the rest of the way down to survey the shore.
The sky was clear, the sun bright but not yet unbearably hot as they dragged their feet through sand, cameras swinging from cords around their necks, trash grabbers in hand. From as far out as the boardwalk, the shore was strewn with seaweed, trash, and other unknowns.
Think we’ll find something worthwhile?” Adrian asked. After the last earthquake some months ago, a tidal wave had beached an entire sofa up at Arkadia. The find had gotten the two of them and some of the other members of their crew from that day photographed with big smiles on either side of the drenched piece of furniture and a small write-up in the conservation team’s annual report.
“That was barely a tremble we felt last night,” Risa said. “I doubt we’ll find more than dead fish. Maybe an eel.”
They approached the point on the beach where the rough, uneven sand leveled into a smooth slope down toward the water. Some early risers had set up umbrellas and towels out ahead and were watching the waves come in and go out. A few people were jogging and a couple more had waded out into the water, their heads bobbing in the distance like buoys.
“Let’s start at the edge, where the cliffs are?” Adrian nodded toward the bluff that walled in the beach along the eastern side. Risa agreed.
They patrolled the shoreline. As Risa had guessed, they found a couple cigarette butts and bloated fish half-buried in the sand, but no damage or waste more interesting than that. The project managers at the NGO had promised bonuses to the teams that collected the largest samples. The earth-loving Americans running the whole thing out of a sleek office in Makati rewarded them about ten pesos apiece for general trash, while cleanup site photos that went viral came with a thousand-peso incentive. It was silly, cleaning up your own islands for foreigners, your bosses younger than you and not even Filipino at that. It was the sort of work they mocked even as it paid the rent. Still, Risa and Adrian couldn’t hide their disappointment at their lackluster haul. Risa shook her bag, not even a third full. Ahead, the shore continued in a long and pristine stretch. More families had arrived, the adults with their small children, those children with their bright, plastic beach toys, all of them headed for the sea.
“You believe this?” Adrian said. He picked up half of a styrofoam cup. Risa dully snapped its photo, then opened her trash bag for him to pitch it in. “The media’s making a big deal out of another 6.0 quake and all we get is the same stuff we’d find in the slums, give or take a crab or two.”
“All they care about is how it looks in the news coverage, not the actual damage itself. You know how fussy people get over nothing. My friend Kristine at the Astoria says tourism’s gonna sink for the rest of the season because of this.” Risa photographed another dead fish. Adrian pierced its head with the sharp point of his trash grabber and shook it off into a small, incoming wave. “The Europeans especially aren’t used to the quakes. Americans, too. Afraid of everything but never want to follow protocol. Kristine said there was a family last month, New York bankers or whatever, that tried to sue the hotel after their son went swimming out to where the signs all say don’t swim and got stung by a baby moon jelly. Hives were gone in twenty minutes and they still wanted to take it to court.”
Along the water, some children had gathered plastic toy shovels and begun to jab at the wet sand, giggling as it dimpled in the places where they poked. Some of the older children used their toes to write obscenities in the sand, then stomped them illegible when the little ones got near.
Risa and Adrian had made it about halfway down the shore, their trash bags still light, most of the debris on the beach—the strings of kelp, the halves of clams—having been dragged back out to sea, when Adrian’s eyes went big at the sight of something Risa had almost overlooked.
“A jellyfish.” Adrian’s voice rose. He waved an arm at Risa, excited. “Come get a shot of this, yeah? I’ve never seen one like this before.”
They approached the spot where the blob sat on the sand. Risa hummed, appreciating the color, which was unique, the deep purple of ube.
Adrian set down his things and went toward the water, returning with two cupped palms of water to throw on the jellyfish, to clear off some of the sand that had dusted it over. Now its skin was glossy and slick. Risa raised her camera.
All around them, children’s shouts went up and parents’ shouts went up higher. Then, for a moment, the beach was absolutely still, as it could be in the seconds before a wave broke and another swelled up behind it.
Risa and Adrian’s conversation, too, hit a lull while the camera’s shutter went off and an image appeared on the camera’s screen—the purple disc suctioned wetly to the sand.
In the space of that quiet, a small child had approached them. Risa had not even looked up from the camera’s screen before the child was reaching down to touch the gelatin lump on the ground. Through the viewfinder, she watched the child’s small, white fingers meet the jellyfish’s skin. Watched the child grip the disc on either side and tug it up from the sand. Watched the little organs inside the jellyfish tremble as it shuddered awake.
In a flash of panic, Risa’s finger pressed down on the shutter button. A click. Another moment of quiet. Then, the image of the child’s face, caught in an expression somewhere between exhilaration and distress, appearing on the screen.
Silence. A wave breaking. Gulls cawing overhead.
Then the air, ruptured by the child’s awful scream.
Early in the morning on Friday, around 2 a.m., I’m called down to the hospital. Most times, the staff try not to disrupt me late in the evening. But there are certain cases that demand an interpreter, and not only am I the one who lives nearest to the downtown area but I’m also the one least likely to lash out against the person on the other end of the line asking me to get out of bed, get dressed, and head over.
For seven years, I have served as an interpreter in the Jongno area. I completed my degree in communications after giving up an older dream of becoming an airline pilot. As a freshman, I’d discovered I had acute claustrophobia. During the first simulation of the year, I’d climbed into the aircraft and buckled myself in. Someone shut the doors. I looked out the massive windshield at the field of grass ahead. I grew nauseous. Within seconds, I blacked out. When I came to, my instructor and classmates were standing above me, the sky around them so startlingly white that I thought, for a moment, I had died and ascended. An ambulance came and took me to the hospital, where the doctor recommended I change majors, consider other careers.
Former classmates have sometimes reached out since then, usually around the time we would be gathering for a reunion, to ask me how I’m doing. I have no regrets. I enjoy interpreting. I do not take the work lightly. I have been trained to understand the weight language has, to recognize the potential disasters that hide in homonyms, idioms, the otherwise untranslatable. I am skilled at what I do—I can admit that. But I am human, too, prone to error and bound to make mistakes.
When I arrive at the hospital around 2:15 a.m., Hyunwoo, the receptionist on duty, stands to greet me. He gestures to a box of instant coffee sticks on the front desk. I decline, my attention falling on a deaf-mute woman in her forties or fifties, who signs a shaky greeting. I bow to her and gesture back an introduction.
“This is Lee Myungsook,” Hyunwoo says. “She’s the only witness to an accident that happened earlier tonight.” His eyes wander back to the hospital entrance behind me. “Ah. The patient’s father is here.”
A tall man in a navy trench coat enters the hospital through the sliding doors. He’s holding a plastic bag from the convenience store in front of him with both hands. His hair glitters, wet with rain. He has a classic face, hard and solemn. He must be in his fifties. There are wrinkles at the edges of his eyes that might have formed from decades of laughter, though it’s hard to imagine what he would look like smiling now. He nods in greeting to all of us. We bow. Everyone seems tired, though no one of us more than the man in the trench coat.
“Mr. Choi.” Hyunwoo searches the man’s face. “This is Ms. Lee, the witness to your son’s accident. And this is Mr. Kim. He’ll interpret for her.”
The man, Mr. Choi, nods once. He’s watching me with a startling openness, as though I have something he needs. I look to Ms. Lee and sign: Are you ready to tell Mr. Choi what you saw?
She wrings her hands, soft and plump as pigeons, and signs, Yes, yes.
I move to stand opposite her and suddenly realize how small the lobby is. With the four of us gathered there, our arms and shoulders can only barely avoid touching.
Ms. Lee looks around the ring at all of our faces. Then she begins to sign.
This is what she saw as she was walking home from her food stand around 10 p.m.: The city road, dark and slick with rain. The neon signs of restaurants and karaoke bars that flashed even after the shops had closed, reflected in wet streaks of color on the street. A yellow motorbike smearing like paint through the night. All of this, I relay to Mr. Choi, who listens with his eyes closed like the words are a kind of music.
Ms. Lee’s eyes wander upward, her signs looser, distracted, as she recalls the awful stench of rubber burning across asphalt. The plume of exhaust that lingered after the bike had passed. I turn briefly to Mr. Choi and open my mouth to translate, but Ms. Lee’s hands are still going. They move at a frantic pace, blurring in the air as she explains that as the motorbike passed, she turned her head to watch it go, not for any reason in particular. It was just such a curious thing for her to see, even after so many years living in Seoul. She’s been selling fishcakes on a side street, had seen many bikes pass, but none of them were especially interesting to her until that yellow one this night. She doesn’t know why this one caught her attention so thoroughly, but her head couldn’t help turning to follow it.
The bike soared another block and rounded a corner. But the turn was too sharp, or the road too wet.
Here, Ms. Lee’s hands begin to shake even more noticeably, making some of the signs less fluid.
The bike slammed into the concrete face of a bank on the corner of the street. Its sign glowed blue, untroubled, in the night. It must have been a Shinhan bank. That’s right, there was a Shinhan bank on that road, wasn’t there? Anyway, she didn’t see what happened to the bike right away. Instead—instead.
Ms. Lee is trembling all over now.
Instead, she watched the boy. When the bike smashed into the building, his body flew up. It made a backwards arc through the air and came to land headfirst on the concrete. He had no helmet, nothing on his head but dark, rain-soaked hair. His skull shattered on impact. His body crumpled after it, then went still on the road.
Ms. Lee presses the thumb and forefinger of each hand into Os and brings them to her lips, tearing her hands away from her mouth again and again, face contorting around a silent, prolonged shout.
She began to scream, the only sound she could make. People emerged from their apartments, perhaps having heard the crash or having heard her scream, and called the police. An ambulance came, and she must have been mistaken for a relative of the boy, the way she fell down sobbing beside his body. She was taken in the ambulance alongside him. He lay on a stretcher, ruined body blanketed by tarp. The ambulance was so small. A box with little square windows, out of which all she could see was bruise-brown sky as the ambulance raced through Jongno at night.
I turn again to Mr. Choi. My mouth is dry. “It was,” I say, “an accident.”
Mr. Choi’s composed face crumples like metal. Like a body breaking against the ground. I see now that he is already wearing a hospital visitor’s badge, his name written on it in a shaky hand.
“It was instant,” I continue. Ms. Lee is watching me wide-eyed. Her hands rest, one nested inside the other, on her chest. Over her heart. “He died on impact. Immediately. He didn’t feel any pain.”
Mr. Choi lets out an awful sob.
Hyunwoo reaches for me, but I turn and make my way toward the door. I need air. I need room.
Outside, I take off into the fine mist of rain still falling over the city. At the end of the block, I stop, dizzy. Across the street, a storefront awning glows blue. I can’t read the name of the business. It doesn’t matter. I lean over, inhale, and vomit all over the curb.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.