This story originally appeared in GQ and is excerpted from Love and Other Ways of Dying, a new collection from Longform regular Michael Paterniti. The book was published by Random House, our sponsor this week.
Following the piece, keep reading for an in-depth conversation between Paterniti and his editor, Donovan Hohn, about the backstory of reporting and writing this astonishing tale.
Later, lost far at sea, when you're trying to forget all you've left behind, the memory will bubble up unbidden: a village that once lay by the ocean.
Here are the neatly packed homes with gray-tiled roofs over which the mountains rise in rounded beneficence, towering over lush rice fields that feed a nation. Here are the boats that fish the sea, in all of its blue serenity, and the grass in all of its green. There is such peace in this picture of abundance: lumber from the mountain, rice from the field, fish from the deep ocean. People want for nothing here.
This village woven together by contentment is yours, Hiromitsu, and it is here, in the memory of it whole, that you know yourself best, the fourth-generation son of rice farmers. Here among a hundred wooden houses is the concrete one your family built. The house is made with metal pilings, which by your calculations will stand any high tide or errant wave. On your verdant plot a mile from the sea, a garden bursts with peonies, outbuildings sag, a koi pond teems. Here you live with your wife, Yuko, to whom you daily profess your love, and your parents, whom you still honor with the obedience of a child. In the barn are the pigeons you adore, for there's no more beautiful sight in the world than a flock mystically circling deep in the sky, then suddenly one breaking for home, wings aflutter, straining, as if to say, I'm here.
In this cage lie the chuckling pigeons, and in this barn of theirs, your happiness. Against the wall are full bags of rice seed—and from outside you can hear your wife's voice calling your name. Hiromitsu. Night falls—and in the bedroom you lie beside her. You will remember this later when trying to keep yourself alive: falling asleep one last time by the body of your wife in your house, beneath its roof of white tin, in the shadow of the sea.
Rise now, Hiromitsu, man of men, and accept your fate, this day in mid-March, a hint of sulfur in the salt air. Five thirty A.M. and frigid, the first priority is, of course, the pigeons in the barn. Fresh water, their corn-wheat-and-barley mix bought from the shop. The wire cage holds all thirty, iridescent heads bobbing as they hungrily peck. Out in that barn that holds your happiness, you often speak to them (How did you sleep?), call them by name, promise them their daily exercise (We'll fly this afternoon). When you were a child, they called you the Father of Pigeons as an insult, as if you would have no heir but these pea-brained winged things.
You hurry inside. Yuko this morning sleeps late, and so you eat alone at the little table: warm miso, green tea, rice, and barilla boiled in soy sauce. When your wife appears, she moves in fuzzy, nearly wordless proximity to you, beginning her household duties. Your 27-year-old daughter has recently made you grandparents, and now your wife has a new purpose, goes to Tokyo as often as she can to be with the little boy, to diaper and feed him. Though she is 60 years old like you, Hiromitsu, she has become young again with all this mothering, her hair bobbed the same earlobe length as when your daughter was a baby in her arms. She packs a lunch—one of her famous rice balls, made by frying the rice in a pan, mixing in pickled plum and salmon—while you put on a second pair of pants, the lined purple ones, to fight off the chill. You pull on your sneakers, slip into a purple fleece worn over your red-and-gray wool flannel, then the heavy green jacket. At 7:30 A.M. you say good-bye in a rather un-Japanese way, confessing again your love for her.
Down the driveway—past the koi pond and garden with the now bare apricot tree and dormant peonies, past the greenhouse in which the rice seedlings grow—you turn up the road, past your tightly packed neighbors, past the nearby shrine, an ancient wooden building, then along Route 6, the sea to your right, all the way to your job in the lumberyard, your small white compact zipping between the lines—and twenty minutes later you're through the gates.
After hellos, you take your place in the first shed, running tree trunks through the table saw to make rough boards, the fanged blade in ceaseless rotation, throwing sawdust and the good, clean scent of cedar. Not an hour into the shift and your callused hands are chapped red. But even this is familiar, an unspoken lesson taught decades before by your father in the rice fields: Work without complaint. Apply one's mind to the task at hand until everything else has been obliterated.
By noon, the sky has opened a little; a thin sun shines; clouds skim. And yet the cold gathers around you in the shaded shed, running the blade with stiff fingers. One o'clock, two o'clock. You watch the hours. Three is break time, in the wood-paneled room with the warm wood stove. Hot tea, rice crackers, and candy suckers. Two fifteen, two thirty.
At two forty-six, something rumbles from deep in the earth, a sickening sort of grinding, and then everything lurches wildly, whips back, lurches more wildly still. The cut boards stacked along the wall clatter down, and your first move is to flee the shed, to dive twenty feet free onto open ground and clutch it, as if riding the back of a whale. Time elongates. Three minutes becomes a lifetime.
When the jolting ends, stupefaction is followed by dismay—and then a bleary accounting. Already phones are useless. The boss, Mr. Mori, urges you to rush home to check on your wife and parents, but fearing a tsunami, fearing a drive down into the lowlands by the sea, and trusting the strength of your concrete house to protect your wife and parents, you at first refuse. There are ancient stone markers on this coast, etched warnings from the ancestors, aggrieved survivors of past tsunamis—1896, 1933—beseeching those who live by the water to build on the inland side of their hubris or suffer the consequences.
The road is unbroken at first, until the third mile, where a depression has swallowed a rectangle of asphalt. There are downed lines and fallen trees—and yet the rice fields, fallow and unfazed, look exactly as they did this morning. The closer you come to home, the more alarming the damage grows: houses crumpled, windows shattered, sinkholes gaping.
Down near the shore, you pass a car heading inland, an old couple who appear to be your parents, whom you spy but do not exactly register in the fog of urgency, as you accelerate past the wooden shrine, through the dense neighborhood of houses, and turn finally into your drive. Immediately you observe that the storehouse wall has come down, and so have the tiles from the roof. Beams are cracked. The fertilizer barrel lies on its side. The walkway to the barn, however, has been meticulously swept.
Bounding up the stairs, you throw the door open to find the drawers have slid from the bureaus and the floor is snowed over with documents, receipts, and invoices. Your daughter in a mosaicked picture frame, your favorite heirloom, lies among shattered pieces. The Buddhist altar has been upended, the statue evicted. Everything once on the table litters the floor, including a bottle of wine. Out of all this mess, out of all the meaningful fragments in disarray, you can only think to bend down and pick up that meaningless bottle, replace it gingerly on the table. Your wife—where is she? Now your parents return, your father with that grim expression that belies his fear, beseeching you to follow them to your uncle's house on higher ground, just as Yuko's car glides down the driveway. She's been working out, of all things, at the gym. Her face is rosy. She says she only felt the quake as a tremor, had no idea of the damage until she got this far. She carries her worry well hidden. In the back of her car are the four 12-pound bags of rice seedlings that need to be moved to the barn, and though you know the risks of dallying, rice is your history, your patrimony. You send your parents on their way with a promise that you will follow close behind. And some bifurcation of mind allows you to see a neighborhood—your neighborhood—damaged but still standing, on a quiet, mendable afternoon like any other.
So, let it be just another afternoon. Yuko begins moving the bags from the car to the barn while you, Hiromitsu, take three cans of energy drink from the refrigerator and a box of caramels, go upstairs to assess the damage, then step out on the second-floor terrace. You don't look out to sea, not once; you stand staring at the mountain, Kunimi, in the distance. And now you can hear her downstairs, inside again, and now comes the creak of the bathroom door. Comes the sound of running water. Comes this vision of the mountain, placid, immovable—and then, to your right, to the north, within twenty feet, drifts the whole house of your neighbor. The house is moving past as if borne by ghosts. When you turn left, to the south and the garden, everything is as it's always been, dry and in place. When you turn back the other way, you can see only this coursing field of ocean.
And that's when you know you've been caught out, that you've squandered what time you had, that you must trust this house of concrete you've built to stand up to the sea. Your wife joins you on the second-floor terrace, reporting that she, too, saw the neighbor's house wash away. "We should run," she says, but you say, "It's too late." And then: "We'll be fine." Her arms circle your waist and lock there, while you stand stock-straight, gazing at the mountain, without daring to look back at the sea. These will be your last words to her—We'll be fine. And you've already departed your body when everything seems to break beneath your feet and a roaring force crashes over you.
This force is greater than the force of memory, or regret, or fear. It's the force of an impersonal death, delivered by thousands of pounds of freezing water that slam you into a dark underworld, the one in which you now find yourself hooded, beaten, pinned deeper. The sensation is one of having been lowered into a spinning, womblike grave. If you could see anything in the grip of this monster, fifteen feet down, you'd see your neighbors tumbling by, as if part of the same circus. You'd see huge pieces of house—chimneys and doors, stairs and walls—crashing into each other, fusing, becoming part of one solid, deadly wave. You'd see shards of glass and splintered swords of wood. Or a car moving like a submarine. You'd see your thirty pigeons revolving in their cage. Or your wife within an arm's reach, then vacuumed away like a small fish. You frantically flail. Is this up or down? Something is burning inside now, not desperation but blood depleted of oxygen. What you illogically desire more than anything is to open your mouth wide and gulp. You scissor your legs. In some eternity, the water turns from black to gray, and gray to dirty green, as you reach up over your head one last time and whip your arms down, shooting for the light.
What you see when you explode into the air is a world swarming with burbling black water where one hundred homes once stood, pushing you inland on an oily swell. The mountains keep racing nearer. You're submerged up to your neck and carried with the current, flying by treetops. It takes a moment to locate yourself here, to confirm that for the moment you're still living in this thin line between water and sky. In the frigid flow is half a roof, which just so happens to be yours. Frogging forward, you close the gap, try to lift yourself aboard, but your heavy clothes drag you down. You try a second time. And a third, arms wobbling until you fall back, exhausted. On the fourth attempt, you propel enough of your body out of the water to beach on the roof, then wriggle the rest of yourself to momentary safety. This is when you're overcome by two feelings: relief (I'm alive!) and disbelief (Where has the whole world gone?). The wave now surfs you deeper inland, over the homes of Mr. Yoshimura and Mr. Takahashi, Mr. Banba and Mr. Yamamoto (though the water is impenetrably black, you know this village by heart), and just when your forward progress slows (over the roof of the old-age home and the place where the hospital once stood) and is about to reverse direction, you think to jump, understanding that this may be your best opportunity to survive before the wave rushes back or another one speeds forward. The arm of a crane lies just ahead, at the water's edge, and yet you hesitate a second too long. The reversal of water begins as a sucking sound that gains intensity, amplifying, and then you're flying, faster and faster, backward over the village on a carpet of black water, to a line of froth where land and ocean formerly met, the mountains receding in a shot, and with them, everything you once thought immovable and holy. Where are you being taken? And what awaits you there?
So it is that you slide out into this nothingness. Tendrils of smoke rise from the country at your back; fires dot the coast. The slim chances of survival and the utter, certain loss of everything you call home makes you delirious, almost slaphappy. Hard to imagine that at 2:46 P.M. you were at the lumberyard, cutting boards, looking forward to your midafternoon break, and now at the hour when you'd normally be flying your pigeons, you're instead being pulled out into some watery oblivion under a low ceiling of gray cloud, a disconcerting smell of diesel on the air. Your body thrums with such adrenaline you feel nothing now. No thirst or pain, no fatigue or cold, though you've just been thrown in the ocean in March and are now exposed to near zero temperatures.
Your first thoughts turn to Yuko, how you're certain she's alive and certain she's dead, too, how your mind continues to hold these opposing ideas with the same fervor. On the one hand, in some myth, you'd like to believe she's become a mermaid. Or she was gently lifted and placed onshore, where she awaits your return like a seafarer's wife. On the other, doomed from the start, she was struck by a concrete pillar and went tumbling with the others. Or the watery hand held her down until she was motionless. And even as you play these scenarios, you're also imagining your parents, and how you're going to explain this to them, explain how, in the end, you happened to live while she disappeared, all because you didn't heed the tsunami warning—and their warning, too!
This line of thinking may kill you. It's vital to empty your mind of memory and remorse—the birds, the house, her—the might-have-beens (...fingers loosening, then raking your body as she was swept away), because you're an amnesiac speck who survives by the grace of some force you suspect may be circling to crush you. Be ready.
All your clothes—the two pairs of pants, the shirt and purple top, the green down jacket, even the watch on your wrist—all of it is intact, on your body, if drenched. The tsunami has taken over 20,000 lives, but from you, only your left shoe. And those caramels you stuffed in your pocket. The three cans of energy drink, mercifully, are still there.
At sunset, sky in scratches of purple light, a gnawing in your gut tells you it's dinner, so you crack open the first can, drink, then, head tilted back, try to lick out the last drop. The roof is perhaps twelve feet by six, of corrugated metal nailed to wood beams, your raft at sea. Last night, you and Yuko slept beneath it, and now you perch atop it on the sea, above the goblin sharks and whatever else lurks below. Saltwater laps up the sides, and any sudden movement immediately sets it seesawing. Sit still, in the middle—and as time passes, let the contrite sea bring gifts from the dead. This makes you giddy, the gifts. First it brings a red marker. Then the torn pages of a comic book, a manga, its hero, Captain Tsubasa, kicking a soccer ball with superhuman force. It brings some sort of red container that used to hold paint. It brings a tatami mat woven together with string, a broken radio, and a white hard hat. All of which you fish out of the murk. The hat (To whom did it belong?) immediately goes on your head, the marker in your hand. You imagine the dead offering you these things from underneath the sea. Hunched over the ripped comic, you test the marker on the damp page and write the following words in the margin: On March 11, I was with my wife, Yuko. My name is Hiromitsu. Then you tear the paper, fold it, place it in the red canister, seal it, and with the string from the mat, bandolier it to your body. Resume your pose.
Nighttime is a dark tunnel, starless and strange, the sound of water nibbling at the edges, and in the distance the beating rotor blades of helicopters. You're being dragged, deeper to nowhere. You try your voice, just to keep yourself company. You sing to forget, pass time, stanch the fear. You sing to remind yourself that this is indeed you, in the wreckage of a debris field. It's an old song, your voice an imperfect husky tenor. On a raft drifting farther out to sea, you sing about high school.
Red evening sun is casting its shadow....
Our voices bounce in the shadow of an
Ah, we are third-year high school students.
Even if we get separated
We will be classmates forever.
Now the temperature drops—and as it does, your senses return. You sit, holding yourself in a tight ball, hands pulling knees to chest. The key is not to sleep. You remember this from a famous Japanese adventurer you once saw on television. Do not sleep. Also: Do not think of Yuko tumbling beneath. Do not think of pigeons. What's surprising is how strong your mind is, how well you forget, how childlike your wonder remains. You've maintained your optimism—an odd word given what's befallen you, but that's what it is, an openness to being bemused or astonished. You've tapped into some hidden spring of endurance. You're open to little miracles now, so let one come.
The blue light appears from the depths, glimmering up through the inky water. In your ball on the roof, you find yourself surrounded, inexplicably bathed by luminescence. You squint but can't identify the source. Might these be the spirits of the dead, meant to convey a message of hope or allegiance rather than surrender? That's how you take it, at least. And if a picture could be made of this moment, then the world would see you—the man named Hiromitsu—seated in serene meditation, staring in awe at the blue light that comes from the abyss, then laughing out loud.
At sunrise, the scene resolves itself: the black water, the blue sky, a thin band of land on the far horizon. Soon you will see an explosion, in the vicinity of the nuclear-power plant, a loud blast and then a rust-colored cloud rising ominously, in atomic layers. Do not look back. You notice a fishing rod floating alongside you, one you glimpsed the night before, and realize that you're traveling in a slow-moving whirlpool of sorts, the same relics recurring, new ones entering the gyre and orbiting the roof as it gets sucked out farther and farther.
Yesterday seems long ago, and today, you tell yourself, must be the day of your rescue—you're willing it so. The helicopters come close, circling for survivors, and the dozen times you hear one, you climb to your feet, scream and wave. There are boats in the distance, cutters and smaller lifeboats trolling, and for those, you holler even louder, though time after time they turn back before reaching your debris field, your little ring of ocean. Is it that they don't believe anyone could be this far out?
In between, you fish more objects, including a futon and blankets, which you lay out in the sun to dry. You write in the margin of the comic book. I just want to report that I am still alive on the twelfth and was with my wife, Yuko, yesterday. She was born January 12 of Showa 26. You fold the page, place it in your empty can, and ripping more string from the mat, tighten it across your chest, adding one more testimonial to your body.
So the hours linger, the sun beats, rust-colored smoke rises, and now you can feel your thirst clawing. Drink the second energy drink in slow, intermittent sips. When it's gone, you're gripped by an animal urge that nearly upends the disciplined regimen you've set for yourself. You fight the need to drink that third energy drink, hand fluttering for the holster—no, save it for tomorrow, if luck brings you that far. This is when you think to drink your pee. You collect it in your hands three times and drink—warm but not terrible.
There's another problem, too: The wood of the roof has become waterlogged, weak and rotten. And from time to time a low rumble comes up from the deep, aftershocks. At first the sound is startling but then you only worry about the waves. Has a swell begun to rise? What approaches from the east? You now have waking dreams, hallucinations: You're convinced you see a body coming near, and start screaming—Help me! But then it's a tree trunk. In another you see a huge wave hurtling toward the roof and imagine turning into a tree to save yourself. But just as you think to stand and hang your arms like branches, you stop yourself for fear the roof will tip.
One other thing: You're not uninjured after all. A nerve at the top of your palm has been cut—how you're not sure—but now it radiates sharp pain. And your eyes have begun to swell shut. You opened them underwater, now some infection blurs your sight. Still you sit, knees drawn up, white hard hat in place for safety. Safety is important, you know that. You work in a lumberyard. You live in a village by the sea with your parents and wife, Yuko. You will be rescued soon, by concentrating on the sounds, engines and rotors and waves. On a scrap of wood, you write with the red marker—SOS—and if any machine approaches, even remotely, you stand and yell and wave at it. Please.
You muster the energy to sing again, same school song, second verse in your now hoarse tenor (Help me!):
We had a day in tears.
We had a day in jealousy.
We will fondly remember those days.
Ah, we are third-year high school students.
Once you take her hand at folk dancing,
Her black hair smells sweet.
A fat statuette of Daikoku, a god of fortune, bobs by, the round belly and happy demeanor, the rice barrels at his feet that signify plenty, plucked from someone's home and delivered here to you, a very good omen. His name translates as the "god of great darkness," and yet, as he wields a mallet, his broad smile conveys contentment. You think to bring him aboard, but you no longer trust the roof, nor your ability to balance on it. So you allow a small acknowledgment of the moment: one more laugh in diminishing light, the last of your good cheer.
Exhaustion, in its full flower, strikes on the second night as the ocean air drops to freezing. You can't keep from shaking, even wrapped in blankets. You crave sleep, a desire to be curled in bed. And in your mind, remembering stories from youth, you imagine yourself as the hero who survives the great calamity only to face, in a moment of cosmic irony, a different death. Dehydration, hypothermia, bodily dysfunction.
The second night is interminable. The stench of oil thickens as you shrivel. The water seems to rise. The grinding reverberates from the center of the earth. The roof is disintegrating beneath your feet. If there's a force trying to crush you, you realize now that it's neglect. Where nature brought the full bore of her attention on you, cleaving you from all that was precious, it has abandoned you here, in these black, oily fields. No singing now. At some point, the blue light returns—billowing pods, otherworldly ocean mushrooms, phosphorescent jellyfish, it turns out—but if someone could see you in that supernatural glow, they'd see a thin, hunched man, mouth in that grim line of your father's. You're too tired to be amused or feel optimism. The light can't feed or save you. Maybe it's not a sign after all. The tunnel narrows. You write another note, to your parents this time. I am sorry for being unfilial, it says.
Let it go, Hiromitsu, man of men. You had your reasons for staying—and you stayed. Two days before, there'd been another tsunami warning that came to naught. Some had rushed to high ground, and then...nothing. In a land of tremors and quakes, of errant waves and a history of coastal destruction, the people had grumbled a little. Too many false warnings—and with so much to get done. And when you came home and found the contents of your life strewn on the floor, willy-nilly, all the desire to flee left you. You decided to abdicate to nature—or stand up to it—because somewhere inside, you had a flash of invincibility; that is, you thought, If my life is worthy and my house is well made, it will be strong enough to stand up to the wave—and the moon and stars (none of which care for you, Hiromitsu, nor soothe or feed or augur). You realize now that once you arrived home, once shown the precious thing about to be taken away forever, once you saw the garden and barn, the koi pond and the pigeons, and Yuko arrived with the rice seed, you knew you wouldn't be able to leave—that you would be doomed by obligation and memory and sentimental attachment—which is how you've ended up here now, on the roof of your house, nine miles out to sea.
Let morning come. Let it come and with it all the helicopters and boats gathered around in some holy convocation, to rescue you from the rising sea and the goblin sharks, for you are pure, Hiromitsu. Or let morning come and suck you down in the last black hole, for you are not. After focusing so intently on survival, it almost doesn't matter now. You can't keep from shaking in the cold, and there may be advantages to slipping quietly under the cover of ocean (for one, to join your wife, whom you know to be both alive and dead, a mermaid and a body tumbling). But then you're imagining your parents again, both sitting around a low table, wordless, tea untouched. How could you ever explain to them that, after failing to heed the tsunami warning, after standing up to the wave in your concrete house and being smashed by your hubris in the form of tons of rushing water, after somersaulting and surfacing and clambering to safety, after being dragged out to the sea and neglected there as you can see in the far distance your ruined country in little fires on the coast, after mustering your optimism and hope and fighting so hard to live (three times you collected and drank your own pee), you came to the third day and swaddled in last testaments roped to your body, with visions of those who bore you in mind, how could you explain to them—your mother and, most especially, your father—that you finally just gave up?
On that last morning, when the light leaks up from the water and bleaches the sky, you fumble for the third energy drink, tip it to cracked lips, and slurp greedily. You're too weak to stand now, body swollen, hands frozen, your voice hoarse from yelling. You sit on your roof, on the futon, cross-legged, unmoving like a statue, wearing a white hard hat. You hold up your scrawled message, too—sos!—so blurred by the water you can't even read it, but still, you're not of logical mind. Perhaps someone else can.
At first you listen for the whirring sound of helicopter rotors or the gurgle of a boat engine. Even the faintest murmur sparks an attempt to rise, shout, wave. But as the hours pass, you descend into yourself, shutting the cupboards one by one. The rice, the pigeons, the lumberyard, Yuko, your parents, your daughter: It wasn't such a bad life, but for the ending. The debris field has become so thick it looks like land, and the oil keeps spreading. You're too tired to think or care. Head bowed, you focus only on what's right before you, the fringe where the rotted roof is being licked by salt water. Soon, you know, the dark flank of sea will transform into rolling hills of water, and another wave will come for you. Now black water bubbles up through the planks and scraps of corrugated tin. A last note to your parents: I'm in a lot of trouble. Sorry for dying before you. Please forgive me.
Just before you lie down on the futon and wait for death, there comes a disturbance on the horizon again, the faraway shape of a boat, the whir of a propeller at the edge of your mind. The sound brings you shakily to your feet, where you shout and wave...until you watch the boat turn away, diminishing on the horizon.
A terrible lonesomeness fills this void now. It would be good to sleep, though that surely spells the end. In your beleaguered twilight, you either see or dream that the receding boat has changed course and is circling back. But who can trust these visions anymore? Before your eyes, it seems to grow into a gray lifeboat with one, two, three...three times that, nine rescue workers in green bodysuits and gray life vests. When the boat doesn't turn away, when you can feel a searchlight on your skin, you let loose your last primal yawp, "Help me!"
Out of the oblivion, a clear voice responds, "We're here," and the boat drifts alongside your roof-home, and the voice asks, "Which side is safest?" And you say, "The side toward land, please," as you strip the plastic container full of notes from your body and place it on the altar of your futon. Then one of the bundled figures steps out of the lifeboat onto the tippy roof and comes toward you with arms outstretched. The figure leads you across, five paces, and only when you lean forward into their boat and splay your body over its hard gunwale, like a glorious falling tree, do you know it's real.Immediately you're wrapped in blankets by the incredulous men. They want to know who you are, hand you yet another can of energy drink. Speechless, you take a long slurp, then burst into uncontrollable tears. Who are you? Your memory opens suddenly to a fire truck on the road before your house just before the wave, the loudspeaker announcement over and over again, "Please evacuate." And you remember directing your wife to move the rice seed into the barn while you went up to the terrace to stand lookout. Even a quarter mile to higher ground and she would otherwise be safe.
You're tested for radiation, transferred to a naval destroyer, and given porridge and umeboshi, pickled plum. You're placed in a hot bath, and the crew members are shocked by the amount of mud that comes off your body, even as you continue to shiver with such violence that they must remove your body from the warm water. Then you're on a helicopter, airlifted over the ravaged coastline—the ground below silt-blackened as if burnt, the pornographic wreckage of houses and buildings, colorful entrails of bedsheets and curtains, people below digging with their bare hands for children, parents, spouses, mothers washing dead babies with spit—to a hospital outside the radiation zone. Meanwhile, the images of your rescue have been televised across the world, the man on his roof, dragged nine miles out to sea, found on the third day, a day almost devoid of survivors but you.
If you were an angel, Hiromitsu, or thought yourself chosen, now would be the moment to deliver your message to the world. Now would be your moment to make an example or speak uplifting words. To transubstantiate into a symbol. Of hope. Perseverance. Strength. For the news reports call you a miracle.
But you're more humble than that—and broken—fearful as well, for now you must tell your parents, your daughter, everyone, exactly what happened. You would rather make yourself invisible—almost rather have drowned—than reveal your disobedience, your stubborn selfishness, for that's what you think of it as: the sins of a child. You lie in your hospital bed with IVs, doctors who come and go. You're dehydrated and whittled down, face unrecognizable at first, bruised and cut but nonetheless in good recovery. You're out of the hospital that evening, and when you first see your father at your uncle's house, you're surprised by how spry he seems. In the days before the tsunami, he'd been struggling with his health, and slid downhill when you went missing, unable to sleep or eat. He wouldn't listen to the radio or watch the news. But your mother says that when friends arrived to say that you had floated onto the television screen that third day, he seemed to regenerate. In what is for him a great show of emotion, he says, "I'm glad you're alive. Many people made mistakes. You need to keep living." That's it—no encouragement or criticism, no questions, as if he doesn't want to know.
Of course, you tell your mother everything, because underneath, she's stronger than he—and then, shortly after, you go to Tokyo and you meet your daughter at the Kawasaki train station, standing anonymously among the hordes. You haven't seen your daughter cry since she was a teenager. And after a quick hug, describing how it was you who suggested that Yuko carry the rice seed to the barn while you went and stood on the terrace staring at the mountain, as your daughter reads between the lines (You could have saved yourselves), her expression even now is unchanging. She tells you she's glad that you're alive, and you believe her. When you've finished, she seems to absorb the truth—that her mother is gone, but that you've returned—and says, "Well, then, you must feel better, for you're talking a lot." Whatever else she thinks she holds inside and turns to go home, swallowed by the crowd.Once released from the hospital, you don't return to your razed house, to your neighborhood between the sea and the mountain, but relocate to a suburb of Tokyo, to a subsidized apartment big enough for you and your parents, in which you dream of the place you just left.
These are strange days, in this anonymous eight-story beige structure where, at first, you know nobody—and where the world carries on without memory, the bustle of salarymen in the stations and streets, traffic rushing somewhere. You say nothing about who you are to the neighbors but spend your time trying to keep busy, all in order to forget, too. Unbidden, you begin a daily sweeping of the walkways at the complex. You and your broom, hoping to make yourselves useful. You also try to spend time with your grandson, who is now a short commute away, but of course, mothering doesn't come as naturally to you as it did to Yuko. And so between your parents, who sit all day watching television in sad nostalgia for everything lost, and your daughter, whose life is busy and now motherless, your displacement is complete.
You're not a poet, in fact you've never read, let alone written, much of anything in your life—Yuko read feverishly, as if she were running out of time—and yet ever since you scribbled that first note on the roof at sea, words have become a conduit. They make the pain smaller, you say. Now you write poems and little fables, reflections and admonitions. All the scraps go in a black bag belted to your waist, the vault of your collected emotions and memories. You write one poem, "A Song of Five Lines," that goes as follows:
How many days later
Will you appear in my dream
This is how you speak to her, through the scraps in the bag, but also aloud sometimes. Before eating, you might murmur, "Thank you," as if she's prepared the food on your plate. You might do the same on a beautiful day, as if she's created it. And before bed each night, you tell her you love her. You say this to her presence or spirit, but you forgo mementos, little altars, or pictures on the wall. You can't bear the idea of seeing her again, as you knew her in all those endless days before the wave.
Here's how you think about it: Together you constructed many things throughout your life. Then her body disappeared, but the constructions still remain. Human beings die: That's natural. But to accept her death is to lose all hope. And yet you know now in retrospect that there were so many small good-byes, prophecies, and encouragements. There was a dream you had in the months before the tsunami: You were alone and couldn't find your wife—everywhere you looked, she wasn't there—and you woke up instantly, thinking, I need to find an accountant, because she did all the accounting. There was a trip Yuko made to see your grandson, one that lasted more than a week. She returned home and told you that since you'd survived ten days without her, cooking and cleaning, you were now ready for anything. And then, of course, she habitually ribbed you. If it came down to it, she'd ask, if the world came to an end and you could take only one thing with you, would it be the pigeons or me?
"The pigeons," you would say, just to see that look on her face, that flash of mock anger, admiration, and uncertainty.
Three months later, in June, you go back, traveling on the bullet train two hours north under hazy sun to the city of Fukushima, continuing to the coast by car. Your parents have recently returned to the village, moved into temporary housing there, one-room modules in clusters off a main road, each with a television, a refrigerator, some rudimentary furniture, a latrine. The clothes are hung on hangers off nails in the wall. After driving through the mountains, through fluctuating radiation levels, a landscape steeped in cesium that will persist for decades, your first stop is the lumberyard where Mr. Mori, the boss, removes his white hard hat and greets you with bows that you return in double. "How is everything?" he asks after the formalities, placing a hand at the center of your back as he leads you out into the yard, and you respond by saying, "She's still missing," and he shakes his head what a shame.
Mr. Komuro, Mr. Tomita, and all the other workers: They're astounded and pleased to see you, so pleased that they keep asking, "When are you coming back?" You smile, for this is something you want more than anything—to come back—but have no answer. Or do, but don't say: I'm trying to fill the space left behind by my wife. But they intuit some part of this. Two here have lost their homes; a colleague at a nearby yard died; Mr. Hamauchi, in the office, has lost his father, his body identified by DNA. Most all of the men operated the heavy machinery—the backhoes and forklifts—used to try to dig out the tar-filled bodies buried by the sea. Yours isn't the only survivor story they tell in the yard. They tell of people swept off in cars, who lived, of families carried inland who clung to trees, and when the wave sucked back out to sea, it cleaved the wife, the husband, the child. "We had a regular life until we felt how great the power of nature could be," says Mr. Mori. "I went to the hills and watched the waves coming. I could see people running, like it was a movie."
"I was too scared to look at the ocean," you say in return. "I looked at the mountain."
And then you head toward the sea, to where the house once stood. The landscape appears bulldozed, miles of decimation, houses lopped from the earth as if they were rice stalks, chunks of concrete set at unsettling angles. Your neighbors have lost six of seven in their family; another family of four has disappeared. Babies and grandparents alike, gone. Three hundred yards from the ancient wood shrine is your driveway. Now down you go, past the imaginary garden of corn and onion, potato, garlic, and taro. The imaginary peonies are in full bloom, the invisible apricot tree bears small fruit, the imaginary koi pond teems. Here was the greenhouse where the rice seeds were planted; the warehouse that kept the machines, the combine, tractor, and rice-drying apparatus; the barn that kept your thirty pigeons. Perhaps, in the end, you did love them best, for they seemed unlovable to everyone else.
Your folly, the concrete house, is a pile of rubble. (Here is the kitchen and here is the bathtub; here is the bedroom with the roof above.) The foundation remains, a last footprint, but there's nothing else: no garden or outbuildings. Not even her ghost lingers. By the ruined koi pond, in a desolation of cinder block and metal rod, is a note intended for Yuko, left by one of her best friends, set beneath a rock near a guttering candle.
"I've come here for you," it reads. "How long are you going to play hide-and-seek? That's enough. Come out!... Yuko, can you hear me?"
Before heading back to Tokyo, you visit your uncle, who has kept something for you. He reaches into the closet, wrestles with a heavy bag, and there on the floor at your feet are the clothes they found you in, nine miles out to sea.
Here is the flannel shirt and here are the pants. Here's the purple fleece—and the green down jacket. Here's the comic-book page scribbled with your note (I'm in a lot of trouble...) and the container in which you placed that note. And so you take them with you, the magical clothes that you wore on the last day of your former life.
You sleep that night in the makeshift home of your parents, on the floor beside them, listening to them breathe. You rise early so your father can cut your hair, the cold silver blade against your head while you sit under his hand, wordless, with gratitude. You ride the bullet train south, disembark at Kawasaki station to walk to your new home, the empty apartment, where you will sweep the sidewalks. You are here now, adrift. The crowd—the salarymen and the schoolkids,f everyone on their busy way—swells. It rises around you and bears you aloft and out into the light, where birds, too lovely and painful to gaze upon, swarm the sky.
This article was excerpeted from Michael Paterniti's new collection, Love and Other Ways of Dying. Buy your copy today.
A conversation with Michael Paterniti
How did Michael Paterniti find this incredible story? And, once he did, how the hell did he figure out how to tell it? His editor on the article, Donovan Hohn, asks Paterniti for the backstory of "The Man Who Sailed His House" and the lessons he has learned from two decades of writing captivating magazine articles like the one you just read.
Donovan Hohn: During much of the 20 years that you were writing the essays collected in Love and Other Ways of Dying, the period style of magazine writing tended toward a cynical or lightly satirical knowingness that is strikingly absent from these pages. I get the sense rereading them that you are genuinely wonderstruck by the stories you tell, and by the people in them, for all their flawed and suffering and at times comical humanity. Maybe that's one way to think about the "love" in the book's title? There is something merciful, generous, tender, almost loving in your way with portraiture. The giant in "The Giant" comes to mind, as does Hiromitsu Shinkawa in "The Man Who Sailed His House" (about which we'll have much more to say).
Michael Paterniti: So, Donovan, you’re making me think: What IS the love in that title? The death part is easier, of course. But the love part—even at its most difficult, I think of these as partial love letters, but it’s not a softheaded love, it’s a wanting-to-know-everything, all-in kind of love. In love with the subject at hand. In love with the opportunity to be curious. Curious about a giant living in a hovel in the Ukranian countryside. Curious about a man whose life and home were decimated by the Japanese tsunami and how he was somehow found days later, nine miles out to sea, on the roof of his house, alive. By the time you’ve obsessively planned and gotten yourself to whatever country, by the time you’ve crossed your time zones and peered out the window at strange signs, I think you need to be feeling some sort of wonder, and curiosity, or you’re in the wrong line of work. And a lot of my writing has been about real people, often underdogs of one kind or another, living under real duress. It’s not been Hollywood movie stars, complaining about room service, or whatever. I’m the first to read those stories, but I love to find and tell those stories in which the mythological lives inside the ordinary. And I’m open to being moved, but I’m also open to trying to see some sort of harder truth in there, too.
About the styles of certain magazine epochs, I don’t put too much currency on it. I mean, don’t you think any writer takes her or his lead from the writing they love, no matter what the prevalent fashion or style? If it puts them “out of time,” or out of their own particular time, then, that seems interesting to me. But if you look hard enough, there are examples of all of it out there in any given moment, even now, especially now. Way back when, just as the voices of cleverness and snark were amassing, I remember being blown away by Darcy Frey’s “The Last Shot” when it ran as a folio in Harper’s. It was just so full of suspense and care, wonder and clear-eyed tenderness. That seemed like the high bar, something to aspire to. And believe me, early on, it wasn’t as if my writing was entirely snark-free!
DH: Yes, Frey's "The Last Shot." I remember being blown away by it, too. And don't get me wrong: snark can be a tasty ingredient. But for a while there, magazines seemed to be pouring it on with a heavy hand. It was the balsamic vinegar of authorial stances. Maybe this idea of finding the mythological inside the ordinary is a more interesting way to think about it. Diane Saverin recently published in The Atlantic a biographical essay on Annie Dillard called "The Thoreau of the Suburbs." Dillard tells Saverin that "one of the goals of writing about an experience is to mythologize it.” You, in these essays, mythologize other people's experiences as well as your own. I think of them as nonfiction fables, which is not as contradictory as it sounds. So many of them re-enchant reality. Enchantment brings together magic and song, and I find that the lyricism of your prose is a big part of the sorcery. You incant, you cast spells. For good reason, "The Giant" ends with your children singing—joining you and the Giant in song.
MP: Wow. I hadn’t thought of that. I do think there’s probably a music to certain stories I love to read, or sound to the landscapes in which they take place, a rhythm that sometimes comes through in the writing. I mean language is an instrument, too, even when it’s not being used tunefully. I remember staying at a motel in Dodge City for the piece “Eating Jack Hooker’s Cow” and waking every morning to these big trucks rolling by on the highway, full of cows headed to the slaughterhouses. The trucks were called “pots,” and they made a staccato three-beat noise as they passed, hitting some buckle in the road. The first words of the story came out as that emphatic three-beat, “Go with him,” but I only realized that later.
DH: Yes, and you turn that command into a kind of refrain. It comes back again, slightly altered: "Follow her . . ."; "Listen to her . . ."; "Drive with Jack Hooker . . ." A very musical device.
MP: To your point about mythology, though, I might rephrase the quote by saying “one of the goals of writing about an experience is to remember it first.” To make a record of it. That’s the point of a number of the pieces in the book for sure: the Cambodian genocide and what happened at the prison camp Tuol Sleng, for instance. Or even Mitterand’s last meal. But in that distance between the part of the story you experienced yourself and your memory of it—and then the distance between your mind and the page—a lot happens. You must stay true to your notes and transcripts, to the facts as they present themselves, but in the words, and behind them, and in an array of gestures that amplify or contradict the narrative truth, you often find yourself in this meta-space where a lot of thinking and feeling happens. I mean, we all have our mythologies, and we’re all mythological because of it. So maybe the writing reflects and wants to reveal that, too. It just so happens that if you go to visit a giant who lives in a hovel with his tiny mama, you’re entering a living fable. Your job as a reporter is get the details and your job as a writer then is to cast some sort of story-spell, but in my mind, it’s always more like trying to get people to read the next sentence, and the next paragraph. I’d love to think of it as enchantment, but on the most technical level, it’s just where do I go from here? And can I drag anyone with me?
DH: I’ve had a peek inside that file of story ideas you keep. It's a cabinet of wonders. Not every writer "happens" to find himself going to visit a Ukrainian giant who lives in a hovel with his tiny mama, or a man who spent 15 years at Charles de Gaulle Airport ("the longest layover in history"), or a man possessing a mysterious case of amnesia and seven aliases on whom you bestow an eighth, Mr. Nobody. Or "The Man Who Sailed His House." When I was at GQ, in editorial meetings, we'd discuss whether or not an idea sounded like a Paterniti story. "The Man Who Sailed His House"—totally a Paterniti story. I should acknowledge here that it was my former colleague, Michael Benoist, who first stumbled on the newswire item about Hiromitsu Shinkawa and brought it to me with you in mind. Man swept out to sea, rescued after two days afloat on the roof of his own wrecked house—it sounds like a true-life fable, but how to turn it into a feature-length piece of narrative nonfiction was not obvious.
MP: First of all, I feel lucky to have anyone think about me in meetings like those, and secondly, between Mike Benoist and you, I was given a gift with that story. Our biggest problem was that, at first, Hiromitsu Shinkawa had no interest in talking to us. None at all. He’d lost his wife—and a huge part of his life—and he wasn’t inclined in that collective moment of pain and loss for the Japanese people to single himself out at all. So, it was just another story that wasn’t ever going to come to fruition, filed under Almost. But when I told him that I was coming to Japan anyway, he countered with 15 or 20 minutes of his time, out of politeness. That’s all he said he had. And we—you, me, Jim Nelson [the editor-in-chief of GQ]—just went for it. And maybe because I showed up at the appointed time, on the appointed date, for my 15 minutes, he saw that we meant it. And those 15 minutes turned into two hours, which turned into the next day, which turned into us on a train headed north into the radioactive zone around Fukushima, to return to his little village, which had been entirely decimated. It was his first time back to see the wreckage of his house, and the devastation, and all of what he was feeling he was willing to share with me, in a powerful, if fragmented way that I, then, tried to piece back together. As if to try to tell it back to him.
DH: Natural disaster stories are popular with magazines, for understandable reasons. They're inherently full of cinematic drama. With Shinkawa's story, however, what seemed most interesting was what followed from the disaster—those two comparatively uneventful days he spent alone at sea, waiting to be saved. Here was a man whose world had been washed away, whose own future was in doubt, adrift in this kind of limbo between life and death. How did he pass those hours? What did he think about? And feel? Those are hard questions for a journalist to answer and a hard story, the opposite of cinematic, for a journalist to tell, a highly interior one seemingly more suited to fiction, which permits an author the freedom to imagine the consciousness of characters.
MP: I spend a lot of time in silence as a reporter—and, when I do speak, I spend a lot of time asking a certain set of questions over and over again, in hopes of understanding that interiority, and then I shut up and listen. I might have asked the question “And then what were you thinking/feeling?” a hundred times for this story. He was trying to survive, but he went into a fugue state. We were trying to recover his memories as best as possible. It’s important for the form and the factcheck to resist this dangerous idea of imagined re-creations, of ascribing your own thoughts and ideas to another person’s experience, to imagine what they went through. I know people who confuse this idea of nonfiction with artistic license, and then do just that. But if you really take the time, all of it—the telling detail, the emotion, even the mysticism of these moments—becomes visible through the subject of your story, through their reality not yours. I have no real thoughts of my own when I’m in that one-on-one situation, or in the flow of the moment. I’m just a sponge. Until it comes time to write, and you need to wring it all out. Or hear the music of it again. Or whatever low-/high-fallutin' way you want to put it. It's both: the constant, methodic doing of scales, and the performance.
DH: Back at your writing desk, no matter how well you’ve listened, how much you’ve absorbed, the storytelling requires some alchemy, and in this case you made a number of striking choices about how to tell Shinkawa’s tale. I’d love to hear you talk about how and why you made them if you can remember. There’s the choice to begin with an overture in pianissimo—the slow, quiet open in the present tense in which you conjure the world that had been washed away: “Here are the neatly packed homes with gray-tiled roofs ... Here are the boats that fish in the sea ...” There’s the way the opening sentences project forward in time: “Later, lost far at sea, when you’re trying to forget all you’ve left behind, the memory will bubble up unbidden ...” I recall that those sentences and that future tense arrived in a late draft. Most striking of all, there’s that second-person point-of-view, a kind of heroic address, unlike any other second person I can think of, though it’s reminiscent of one you use in “The American Hero (in Four Acts).” Here’s how Andrea Pitzer writing for Nieman Storyboard describes the effect of that second-person address: "Paterniti commands his subject to live through the story again, as the writer lifts it up, turns it inside out, and delivers it back to him as a gift.”
MP: Well, that’s really nice of her to have said, but Hiromitsu gave me the gift, entrusting me with his story like that. As far as decision-making, I mean, second person can go very wrong, and some readers really struggle with it, so if you’re going to try it, you have to have a real reason to do it. It needs to be grounded in story-logic, or feel organic. And even then, I suppose it’s a risk, which makes it attractive. I knew when I came back from Japan, I had no place in this story. In fact, when the tsunami first hit, I was in Egypt, and watched the initial feed in the offices of Al Jazeera, thinking in my own dislocation, of how absolutely impossible and otherworldly it all seemed: cars floating down city streets with people inside, others standing on ten story buildings with the water rising, the images of people running, screaming, holding onto antennae as the waves tried to drag them away. From the start, I was watching from my own moon. So immediately, for me, it was a second or third person choice, though with all the variations inside of those POVs. Once I met Hiromitsu, I was humbled by his desire to unburden himself, so it was a little like narrative therapy, fashioning a story that he could hold on to.
As for the beginning, that landscape was meant to be passive and idyllic for the great destructive force about to be visited on it. Passive constructions, in repetition, with a sort of child-ring of innocence. And you’re right about that first line: It came later, when we decided it was important to cast backward and forward at the same time. It’s like the Marquez line from A Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember…”
DH: There’s also a kind of miniaturism to the story. It’s power depends so much on all those tiny, seemingly trivial details: the notes Hiromitsu writes, the little canisters, the peonies and koi pond and pigeons, the fat statuette of a god. I don’t know what I have to say about them other than that I love them. My favorite may be the torn pages of a comic book on which he writes one of his notes. I remember you had that detail in an early draft, and I asked you—on a hope and a prayer—if you had any idea what the comic book was. And lo and behold, you sent me this snapshot:
Our fact-checker, the excellent Nurit Zunger, figured out that this soccer player is a superhero named Captain Tsubasa, and we added it into the story. Why is that scrap of paper so eloquent? And how did you know to note it and all those other details?
MP: Oh, any reporter, any person, would have, don’t you think? And, man, factcheckers are the superheroes! Before we left to go back to Tokyo, I remember a relative of Hiromitsu’s had a big plastic bag that he wanted to give him, full of what had been found with him when he was rescued from the roof of his house that day, nine miles out to sea. It contained every piece of clothing, every artifact, and Hiromitsu poured it out on the ground, and then knelt down and went through it, narrating as he went. He couldn’t believe it, and it brought back such a strong flood of memories. You wait and wait as a reporter for moments like that, and when they come, when Hiromitsu was re-living it before my eyes, I took it for all it was worth. I was taping, taking pictures, writing notes. I grew new hands to gather it all up!
DH: Since I began with love, I thought I’d end with dying. The other day, re-reading “The Long Fall of Flight One-Eleven Heavy”—such a painfully gorgeous story—I was struck by the thought that it is a kind of companion piece to “The Man Who Sailed His House.” In both, you document the emotional aftermath of disaster. In both, images of the ocean recur, gaining resonance. I was also struck by how elegiac so many of the essays in the book are, how traumatized by death: “The Long Fall...,” “The Accident,” “The Suicide Catcher,” even “The Giant” since Leonid Stadnik’s condition was terminal.
MP: Well, the two—loving and dying—are so completely bound together they could make one word ... I don’t know, doving? Like flying as you fall? I think in the collection, in pieces like “The Accident,” I try to get at my reasons for trying to understand as much as I can about how one goes wide-eyed and with wonder through this world with death ever in the offing. I think of these stories as light-filled and optimistic, even as they try to be unflinching, even as they go to some dark places. I hope one feels more free somehow after reading them, or more connected to humanity. But one point worth making is that memory is an amazing force, and sustains us. In Hiromitsu’s case it was the memory of his lost wife that kept him alive, that keeps him alive today. He still thanks her out loud when he goes to eat. For the happiness she’s brought him. I think that captures it all.
Buy your copy of Love and Other Ways of Dying today.