Leslie sits cross-legged on a rickety wooden dock at daybreak, snorkel and mask on her lap, waiting for her research team to arrive. After navigating the morning market — crowded with vendor carts and rainbow pyramids of hairy eggplants, dragon-striped melons, and papayas — and passing through its humid, curry-scented morning haze, she’s hungry. Oh, to have another shot at yesterday’s Christmas dinner, spicy Thai noodles with shrimp and red chilies. The usual gauzy shroud of international travel had mucked up her senses so that she hadn’t appreciated the meal at the time, but now her jet-lagged stomach reminds her that it’s dinnertime in Norfolk, Virginia. And Christmas there, still.
She leans against a piling and lets the morning sun burn its rays through her closed eyelids. It wasn’t easy leaving her family over the holidays: Reese and Tabitha, her teenaged drama queens from her first marriage; an eight-year-old daughter, Melody, from her current marriage; and her husband Manny, panicked and angry at the thought of being left in charge.
But her shot at tenure depended on this trip — the good-old-boy ceiling and a dearth of scientific publications had put her Old Dominion University assistant professorship on the chopping block yet again — so she had little choice in the matter. She’ll be tired as the day wears on and the heat descends, but an early start ensures they’ll beat the throngs of holidaying tourists. And morning diving, with sunlight slanting into the ocean at a wistful angle, gives the reef a mystical feel. It’s her favorite time to slip beneath the waves.
The pier shakes as the research assistants arrive loaded with gear and plop it down beside her. Two ODU faculty follow: an oceanography professor, Don Killington, a heavy smoker with a rheumy cough and basketball paunch; and Killington’s illicit lover, Benita Gonzalez, graying and tanned, spry and small.
“Morning.” Leslie stands and greets them. A hollow chugging sound signals the approach of their new research boatman. When asked his name, the man proudly offered a string of vowel-rich syllables then pointed at his chest and said, Sam. Sam’s makeshift dive platform has a hand-lettered plywood sign that reads, “Easy door to Thailand underwater world.” He professes to know the reef like his own feet and promises he will take them to the very spot where the ODU team has been taking measurements for years.
Brendan, the taller of the two assistants, will be working with her. He’s blond and wiry, with a build like Leslie’s ex-husband. Handsome, for a kid, he fights as a featherweight in the competitive ring at ODU. “You good to go?” he asks.
He’s referring, of course, to the fact that she spent half the night dancing — it was Christmas after all — with a bar full of giddy, happily tipsy revelers. She’d even broken one of her cardinal rules and danced with Brendan, enjoying the heat and closeness of a young male body in a way that she hadn’t for ages. It was innocent, merely an earnest student indulging his middle-aged instructor, but heady nonetheless.
Sam cuts the motor and ties off the stern. He accepts the gear, each time saying, “Yes, yes,” or “No problem,” until the boat is loaded.
Leslie gives the shore a final look; in the expanse of white sand, a lone palm tree leans toward the sea.
“I was born ready,” says Jake, the other assistant. He’s buff and talks big, but is also the one most likely to have trouble in the water. He’ll have difficulty clearing, or a fin strap will come loose, or his regulator will free flow. Jake reminds Leslie of her daughter Melody when she was three years old and nothing was ever quite right. Her sock was always funny or her shoe was too tight, or her pillowcase too scratchy, or the tags in her shirts felt like bugs crawling up the back of her neck. Leslie calls her Pea, for The Princess and the Pea, because she can feel the tiniest grain of sand in the toe of her shoe.
“Got everything?” Killington asks.
“We’d better have everything. Four weeks I’ve been labeling, bubble-wrapping, shipping, arranging carpools, pre-cooking dinners, lining up caregivers for my mother, lecturing my teens on what not to do while I’m gone, and re-explaining to Manny that this isn’t a pleasure cruise.”
Killington takes a step back. “Right. Glad it’s under control, then.”
And yet they end up trolling back and forth while Leslie searches the bottom, sweating in the heat, the boat’s platform creaking with each swell. Each transect has to be in exactly the same location and somewhere a pair of ten-penny nails has been driven into the coral but she can’t find them.
“This is fine, Sam. Just hook us onto that buoy.” She points to a bright orange float.
“Mai pen rai,” he says, the Thai version of “No worries, mate.” Once he gets the boat tethered, Leslie and Brendan drop over the side. The water is warm for late December and the current strong — a receding tide — with excellent visibility. As they descend, a blue-spotted stingray shakes off his grainy mantle and swims away in a trail of cascading sand. A stray plastic bag floats past. Leslie plucks it up and shoves it beneath her weight belt to keep a turtle from mistaking it for a jellyfish and dying of a clogged intestine.
Brendan locates the first nail and raps on his tank to alert Leslie. She ties off the transect line and swims to the second nail, ten meters away, securing it. Brendan holds the T-bar over the line while she records the incidence of disease on her dive slate.
They’re halfway through when a sudden water surge moves them sideways. It pulls at them and keeps on pulling. It rips the dive slate from Leslie’s hand and drags her across the substrate. A staghorn coral snaps under her elbow. A thin stream of blood floats away from her arm.
The water pressure builds, pressing at her temples. Brendan stares, wide-eyed beneath his mask. He clutches a brain coral, digging his fingertips into the grooves, trying to hold his position on the reef. A residue of fine white grains rises up from his scrabbling fingers.
Then the current comes from all directions. She reaches toward Brendan as she’s spun and sloshed around, but he’s too far away. The sea churns like a giant washing machine and she sees his bright yellow fins crash into a giant barrel sponge, just before a cloud of black water sweeps over her, merging with the water all around, and she can’t see anything. She bumps along the reef, elbows and knees slamming into rocks, corals snapping beneath her as she’s tossed and turned helplessly.
She reaches for the buckle and drops her weight belt. Just as she thinks to hold onto her regulator, its tubing snags and is ripped from her mouth. She sweeps back to retrieve it, but there’s only a severed black line, air pouring out. She pinches it shut and holds her breath, feeling around for her auxiliary regulator. Thank God. She pops that into her mouth and takes a deep breath, hoping to calm her racing heart. The torn end of tubing she clumsily ties into a knot while she tumbles along the reef.
Panic swirls inside her chest. Where is Brendan? What is happening? Keep breathing, she coaches herself. Do not stop breathing.
An image of home flashes into her mind. Who will fix Pea’s socks? Braid Reese’s hair? Talk boy-crazy Tabitha down from the ledge? And Manny — they hadn’t been married long enough to lose each other. She can’t be a casualty here. She cannot.
The sloshing slows to a disorganized swirling. The weightless black-water churning has left her disoriented. Which way to the surface? She forces herself to breathe slowly, deliberately, then inflates her vest and lets its buoyancy carry her upward. She scans the surface. Where is Sam’s boat? The buoy? Brendan? How far had they been pulled? There’s only swirling black water and surging, floating debris.
The trunk of a palm tree spins to the surface. She moves away and bumps her head on a bicycle tire, trash wound through its spokes. Busted lumber and bright colored cushions pop up all around her. To her left, the body of a woman rises to the surface. Leslie gasps and inhales a mouthful of seawater. Coughing and gagging, she moves to help the woman, then sees a long metal pole running through her abdomen and out her back. There is a young child floating with her, tied to the woman by a flowery fabric; the baby stares at Leslie, eyes wide and wild.
A mother’s instinct moves her forward but she can’t seem to make headway in this unpredictable new ocean. The child’s big dark eyes close as Leslie struggles toward her. The impaled woman’s hands clench the iron bar running through her body. Leslie tries not to look.
She grabs the naked child — a baby girl — and pulls her free of the encircling fabric. She is limp and heavy. A thin pulse beats in her tiny neck but she is not breathing. Leslie pulls her close and breathes into her mouth.
Brendan surfaces. “What the fuck, man? What the fucking fuck?” His breath is short and choppy and he turns himself in the water to look in all directions. “Where’s the fucking boat? Goddamn it!” A woman screams to their left and struggles, flailing her arms.
“Help her,” Leslie says. She blows another breath into the child’s small mouth. From the beach, a distant wailing rises on the air. A boat chugs into view, moving toward shore.
Brendan treads water and stares at the floundering woman. “Fuck,” he says, with a sighing breath of disbelief. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” He moves off to help.
The baby girl vomits seawater then wails a high, thin cry. “Shhh,” Leslie says. “It’s all right.” This child — who can’t be more than 15 months old — probably doesn’t understand English, but a soothing tone might reach through her panic. “Shh, baby. Shh. It’s all right. I’ve got you.”
Leslie cradles the child’s tiny buoyant body. The woman Brendan is rescuing clutches his head and neck while shrieking a string of sounds that have no meaning other than abject terror. The fishing boat retrieves two motionless bodies. With a grappling hook, one man pulls them toward the boat while two others reach down and grab whatever appendages will land the bodies. Leslie hears the slap of limp, wet flesh landing against the deck like so much sea bounty.
She waves an arm in the universal help me sign. “Please,” she says as they approach. She doesn’t know if they understand, but — like uttering soothing words for the child — hopes they recognize the tone. “Please,” she says again, holding up the baby as proof that she is worthy.
Instead of reaching for her, the men bend down into the boat and straighten up with a limp body between them. They dump it over the side. It’s a woman. She lands face down and her long hair floats free on the surface, swaying in the shifting water.
“No,” says, Leslie. “Stop!” But the men are already hauling another body over the side. Before it hits the water, she sees a crushed forehead, eyes canted crazily. “Please,” she says again.
“The boat’s too heavy,” Brendan says from behind the men. “They’ve got to lighten the load.”
Finally a man takes the child then drags Leslie up the side of the boat, smashing her breasts and scraping her stomach. She lands with a flop on the deck, surrounded by hollow-eyed survivors and corpses with limbs splayed in all directions. She hears the baby crying and moves on her hands and knees toward the sound.
She stands shakily. The ocean is filled with floating bodies. Debris rises to the surface all around: a mattress, a plastic chair with a squawking, flapping chicken, some sort of wooden bowl floating upright like a tiny ship. A child clutches a red gas can like a life preserver, which it is. Brendan hauls the child on board then pries the can away and tosses it into the ocean. The boy reaches out as if his favorite teddy has been thrown into the sea.
The boat barely moves, and the engine chugs, belching out a thick grey smoke. They pull toward the beach as more survivors reach up from the sea.
A wet, dark-skinned man hands Leslie the baby. The child clings to her shoulders. She hugs her tightly. The weight of tears is heavy behind her eyes. Her mouth is dry. The boat scrapes against the sand and the captain urges people off. Leslie stumbles over the side with her burden and topples onto the sand. The child wails.
On land, she hears the word tsunami and begins to realize what has happened. To the beach. To the reef. To the people. To the country of Thailand. Palm trees are snapped, uprooted, bent over. A red car perches nose down, wheels against the side of what used to be a building. A narrow alleyway has become a rubbish heap, piled with objects and bodies and fragments of buildings. Human remains are caught in the branches of trees, slung over concrete slabs, entangled in twisted metal, crushed beneath debris, sometimes with only a hand sticking out for the living to find. Everywhere there is grief, freshly discovered.
She stumbles forward. The child whimpers at her shoulder. A frantic woman, bleeding from the head reaches out and grabs the face of the child then releases her with a wail and walks off. A warm wetness spreads along Leslie’s hip. The child has wet herself. Not a concern at the moment, but she has no diapers. Would she be able to find any? And what to call her? “Mai,” she considers, pronounced “My,” as in “My Child Now.”
Leslie thinks of her children back home, of finicky Pea, of Reese and Tabitha whom she too often links together as one entity: her teenagers. But they are discrete individuals, outdoorsy, college-bound Reese who still calls her “Mommy” and always says, “Love you!” before leaving, and Tabitha, reigning queen of the double dangly earring and French manicure with her pudgy, bookish boyfriend. She longs to hear their voices, make sure they’re okay, even though it is she who has almost died. Would they hear of the tsunami and be worried? Thailand was a world away from Norfolk. Maybe a tsunami in Thailand wouldn’t even make the news and her family wouldn’t know. Could she locate a working phone?
Brendan appears, his arms hanging at his sides. He is a lost, wet puppy scanning each passing face for its owner. “Jake?” he says, and then calls louder, “Jake?”
Leslie unclasps Mai’s fingers and shifts her to the other hip. “I think we’re on our own.”
Brendan clenches his fists. “You saying they’re dead?”
“We’ll find them. I’m sure they’re all right.”
“Look around,” he says. “Nothing’s fucking all right.”
“Shh.” She pats the little girl’s back. Her fine hair lies against her skull, clumped in sweaty lines. Leslie fluffs it up and blows air into it to cool her down. The child pulls away and stares at her, eyes wide. She’s beautiful, with soft skin and fine, black hair. Her eyebrows pull together as she examines Leslie.
“Why don’t you see if you can find the others,” she tells Brendan, “and we’ll meet back here.” A white line of salt has dried along the ridge of Mai’s hairline. “Be careful,” she tells his retreating back.
A group of farangs — foreigners — gather nearby; Leslie approaches them.
“We do not live here,” laments a man, half of a couple from the Netherlands. His wife — still wet, with a nasty cut on her forehead — nods as he speaks, then weaves dizzily and grabs her husband’s arm.
“We were on holiday,” begins a woman with a German accent. “The wave came, Rolfe grabbed my hand, but he, he — and I . . .” She stops, puts her hands over her face.
A man with a trail of dried blood on his thigh shakes his head in disbelief. “We only arrived last night.” A white-haired woman in a torn nightgown sits cross-legged on the ground beside him, her head in her hands. She wears one sandy slipper. “We’ve got to call home.”
Yes, home. How is it that Leslie feels so frantic about home when there is so much at stake here? And yet the yearning tugs at her, a visceral, physical need; she will not feel as if she has come out alive until she hears their voices at the other end of the line.
Mai plays her hand across Leslie’s chest. Her tiny fingers pull at the front of Leslie’s bathing suit. She stops mid-tug and Leslie follows her gaze to the leading edge of the destruction. An elephant is walking toward them. A man sits astride the beast, early morning light casting long shadows behind them across the piles of debris. The huge mammal picks its way gingerly but surely along the littered ground. At a command from its mahout, the elephant reaches its trunk into a small space beneath a beam, lifts it, and gently sets it aside. Mai squirms to get down, then takes a step toward the animal. Leslie lifts her back to her hip. “Oh, no, baby girl,” she says. “You stay with me.”
Far behind the elephant, a beeping truck backs into view. How could that be? Ah, yes, she thinks, the morning’s devastation has a line, a line past which everything is untouched. Just a little ways away life is still normal, buildings still stand, thousands who had been breakfasting or relaxing are not suddenly missing. She watches the truck come as close as the clogged road allows.
Leslie calls to Brendan and the three of them join the thronging survivors who crowd around as people at the truck take names and hand out bottles of water. When she reaches the front of the line, Leslie asks, “Is there a way to call home?”
“We can take your name,” says the worker. He has an Australian accent and points with his head to a woman beside the truck. “Tell Isra. She’ll write you down.”
Leslie and Brendan approach the young woman holding a clipboard. “Can you help us call home?”
“You are American?”
They nod in unison.
Isra looks at Mai. “And her?” Mai grunts and pulls her arm away when the woman tries to touch her.
“She was drowning. I’m looking for her parents.”
“The lines are too busy to call out,” Isra says. “But we are making a list of survivors.”
“My family won’t know to call,” says Leslie.
Isra looks at her strangely. “They will know,” she says. “It is all over the American news.”
“Thailand?” says Brendan.
“Not only Thailand. All of Sumatra. The reports have come in all morning. Thousands have died.”
Leslie feels numb and suddenly exhausted.
“I heard there’s a cruise ship,” says Brendan.
“Ship?” Leslie watches a man holding two green coconuts walk toward them. He holds one out, its top lopped off, opening to the watery milk inside. Mai reaches for it and he smiles. Leslie gives her a drink then hands it to Brendan. She turns to thank the man but he is gone.
“It’s anchored nearby,” says Brendan, wiping his mouth. “God, that’s good. An American ship that missed the tsunami completely — it’ll ferry us to the airport. I heard it’ll get here by tomorrow morning.”
Leslie thinks about her belongings, swept away along with the hotel that contained them. “What if your passport’s gone?”
“The Christmas trip,” says Brendan, “from hell.”
Christmas, thinks Leslie. What a concept.
“They need people to collect bodies. Thought I might help. Maybe look for . . .” He stops himself, touches Mai’s arm and walks off.
Leslie fills an empty plastic jug with seawater and brings it onshore to scrub Mai clean. She is still diaperless, but she’s a quick learner. Perhaps Mai will be — as Pea had been — one of those children who potty train early.
Sweet Pea. Where would she be right now? On her way to gymnastics? Leslie conjures up an image of her bright, fidgety, spandex-clad daughter. And the older girls? Surely off somewhere, Reese at work, Tabitha with her doughy boyfriend, oblivious to the other side of the world. Had she hugged them before she left? Had she told them that she loved them?
The afternoon progresses and Leslie walks to a nearby makeshift aid station where they eat cold Red Cross rice and Mai learns to hold a water bottle by herself. Mid-afternoon she feels suddenly heavier in Leslie’s arms and her head begins to bob, so Leslie heads to the temple-morgue to find Brendan and pass Mai to him for a spell. He takes her small sleeping form and heads toward the beach.
A swelling need pulses just below Leslie’s calm exterior. Home. Her husband. Her children. Home. Her life. Home. How had she been so anxious to leave it?
The temple sits on a rise, just beyond the reach of that awful, killing wave. It could be a picture postcard with its old walls, lush greenery and high trees. Leslie grabs a surgical mask from the box inside the doorway. It does little to obscure the stench of blood gone stale, of the soil a body releases at the moment of death.
She searches for her coworkers, moving slowly down the line of bodies, fearing she will step on something, on someone. So many of them are children — were children. A mother mourns at the feet of a small boy, handsome except for his mouth, eyes, and nose filled with dark grey sand. Beside him are two young girls. Twins? One reaches out in death, fingers yet grasping for anything that will save her.
Leslie pulls off her mask and rushes outside to the fresh air and sunlight. She tries not to think about the awful smell of all those bodies.
A bull elephant and its mahout work outside the temple. The animal’s great grey bulk is soothing; she watches it lift an uprooted palm tree — a slow, prehensile, front loader. Pea wrote a report on elephants; she learned that they walk hundreds of miles a day in the wild, gestation takes 22 months, babies are nursed for two years and kept close for many more. Had this elephant lost a loved one, too? But no, animals were known to move to higher ground before a tsunami hits, their own complex early warning sensors saving them from death.
She remembers that elephants have their own graveyards, too. They go there sometimes, even when they are healthy, to caress the bones of their ancestors. Researchers had done tests and found that elephants recognize the bones of their dead loved ones and pick them out from the piles of others.
Concerns of heat, disease, and the vast number of dead override the need to identify remains, and a mass grave is prepared at the edge of town. Each corpse is photographed with a Polaroid camera. The pictures are stapled along the temple wall so relatives might still search for answers. The wall reminds Leslie of the photos of the missing after the 9/11 attacks. Except those photos had been questions, still, representations of a slim hope, desperately nurtured, and they were taken of the living in the midst of happy lives — the missing man smiling with his arms around two friends, the mother proudly bearing the birthday cake to her child, the bride and groom smiling for the camera. Those pictures had somehow spoken of hope even as they tattered and faded in the sun. But these photos are a horrific gallery of gruesome answers.
God, Leslie needs to find a phone. She needs to talk to her family. She needs to contact ODU and let them know that three people on her research team are missing. What if they are never found? Would she return home without them? Of course she would, and yet, how could she?
And she would be leaving without the data she had been sent to collect. A small thing, maybe, but the destruction of the reef has its relationship to this horrible human tragedy. In a healthy coastline, reefs and mangroves buffer giant swells and surges. Nature designed her shores with built-in shock absorbers, but human impact had depleted the buffers and here, here was the awful result.
Back at the upended boat, she finds Brendan trying to comfort a restless Mai. Leslie sits in the sand beside them and Mai reaches out in the hold-me signal understood by parents the world over. Leslie takes her and soothes her with a gentle rocking motion. Already the sun is dropping toward the water, an apricot-and-cream postcard swirl.
“Shall we make camp here?”
“Under the boat?” Brendan’s voice carries an edge of panic. He slaps an insect from his leg.
“Good a place as any. We should stay nearby in case the others come looking.”
“It wasn’t even 12 hours ago,” Brendan whispers.
“I know.” She lays Mai gently on the sand. The child opens her eyes, but Leslie strokes her arm and they droop, then open, droop, then open before surrendering to sleep.
“Think there’ll be another one?”
She hears the fear. A corresponding voice ticks off concerns in her own head: family, phone, food, water, disease, desperation, home. And the ocean, her ocean, the one place that had always been her refuge, her solace, has mutated without warning. It has morphed into a murderous lover. It has betrayed her.
“We’ll find a better spot tomorrow.” Mai’s breathing slows; she lies sprawled in the way of sleeping babies everywhere. The sun dips below the horizon and darkness descends with coastal suddenness.
Brendan scoots closer. “Where do you think the others are?”
She shakes her head in the dark. Traditional night sounds have been replaced by the eerie keening of distant sorrow. “I don’t know.”
A woman’s body hangs tangled in the branches of a nearby palm tree, too high to have been removed yet. Leslie imagines it there in the darkness, the possibility of it falling to the ground, reanimating. “Brendan?”
He sniffs before answering. “Yeah?”
“Do you think you could . . . put your arm over me?”
They scoot closer until their bodies touch. He drapes his arm next to hers. She feels his chest spasm against her back as he cries silently.
When the sun rises above the horizon, Mai reaches up and touches Leslie’s chin. Her fingers are soft and tiny and Leslie cups the little hand under her own. She gets stiffly to her feet, lifts Mai, and steps outside their meager shelter. An elephant works nearby, still searching for survivors. She sets Mai down. “Go shee-shee.” The girl responds with a weak stream of urine.
Leslie lifts Mai to her hip and bends down for their last water bottle. The little girl spots the elephant and holds her hands out, gurgling in appreciation.
“You like the elephant?” Mai reaches as far as Leslie’s restraining arms allow, nearly toppling them both. “Hold on, baby girl.” It’s the first time Leslie has seen Mai excited. She moves toward the elephant then looks up at the mahout atop it. “May we come closer?” She inclines her head and gestures toward the animal.
The lines of the driver’s face soften when he sees little Mai. After a short command, the elephant stands still. When it spots Mai, it reaches its trunk toward her. Leslie pulls back in alarm, but Mai jabbers happily and reaches out.
“Chaang,” she says, elephant, the first word Leslie has heard her speak.
The rider continues to sit erect, a statue atop an elephant. He stares as the elephant moves its trunk over little Mai’s hair, snuffing and circling around her head. The baby giggles and reaches up to touch the elephant’s trunk with both tiny hands.
The rider, shocked into action, calls loudly over his shoulder. Again he calls, his voice urgent. Leslie looks around, confused. A man hurries from behind the elephant and freezes when he sees them. She holds Mai tighter. His mouth forms words, but no sound comes out.
The two adults stand in frozen silence until he finally whispers, “Su-ay,” and puts a hand over his heart. His eyes shine and he steps closer, holding out his arms; Mai begins to bounce against Leslie, reaching toward the man. Before Leslie can even think to stop him, the man lifts Mai from her arms. He is crying and laughing, first holding her close, then lifting her high in front of him. “Soo thong khloong jai,” he says. Leslie understands only jai: heart.
As he croons over the child, Leslie stands there, uncertain. The man smiles at Mai in a way that only a father could. He pets her hair and cries, tears sliding into the creases of his smiling cheeks. When he finally turns to Leslie, he says, “Khorb koon,” over and over. “Khorb koon.” Thank you.
Leslie has no words to offer in return. What could she say that would touch this simultaneous sudden loss and sudden gain? No words will do. A gesture then? She remembers the water bottle in her hand and holds it out to Mai who grabs for it with two hands, then brings it to her mouth and tips it up, the top still on. When nothing comes out, she puts a hand over the lid and with intense concentration tries to twist it off. The man watches, his face broken wide open with happiness.
Leslie steps closer and lifts a hand to stroke Mai’s fine, dark, hair. “Baby girl,” she says. Still clutching the water bottle, the child looks back and forth from the man — her father — to Leslie, her interim mother. Mai — Su-ay — is where she belongs, Leslie knows this, but her arms feel suddenly useless. They hang against her body, bereft and heavy. She moves in to kiss Mai’s tiny forehead and the baby tips forward in her father’s arms, closes her eyes, and leans into Leslie to receive it.