Fifteen songs inspired by survival stories from the Indonesian Tsunami, as told to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Barry Bearak and published in “The Day The Sea Came” by The New York Times Magazine on Sunday, November 24, 2004.
“For the earth, it was just a twinge. Last Dec. 26, at 7:59 a.m., one part of the planet’s undersea crust made an abrupt shift beneath another along a 750-mile seam near the island of Sumatra. The tectonic plates had been grating against each other for millenniums, and now the higher of the two was lifted perhaps 60 feet. For a planet where landmasses are in constant motion across geological time, the event was of no great moment. But for people — who mark the calendar in days and months rather than eons — a monumental catastrophe had begun, not only the largest earthquake in 40 years but also the displacement of billions of tons of water, unleashing a series of mammoth waves: a tsunami…”
– Barry Bearak, in “The Day the Sea Came”, The New York Times, November 27, 2005 © 2005 The New York Times. All rights reserved.
I. AROUND EIGHT
Then, around 8, the strangeness begins.
The sea shakes up and down
as if in a rapid boil.
“I think there is a ghost in the sea,” I shout.
“No ghost,” the captain replies,
I weigh the two possibilities.
“I think it was a ghost.’’
Billions of tons of water displaced,
a series of mammoth waves
racing toward land
with the speed of a jet aircraft,
long as well as tall,
carrying with them
all they are destroying.
People become small ingredients
in an enormous blender,
jagged sheets of glass,
tangled manacles of wire.
III. MY RELIGIOUS EDUCATION
My religious education taught me
that much in life is predestined.
a soul makes a contract with God,
without which birth is impossible.
Matters like occupation
and a marriage partner
are decided then,
including the precise instant of death.
But during life,
people still have choices.
IV. SOME LIVE
Some live for the very reasons others die.
Some are fortuitously late,
others disastrously early.
Some are in one part of a city
when they normally should be in another.
A fisherman survives
because he turns his boat
toward the gargantuan waves,
while others steer away.
assigned to the emergency room,
is saved by holiday scheduling.
is carried a mile by the waves,
then delivered onto a logjam of rubble.
V. THE RICH
The rich live right alongside the poor.
The rich own large two-story homes
with ornate columns
and curved balconies.
The poor live in traditional panggung wood houses
held six feet off the ground by stilts.
When we heard the first of the panic-stricken shouting,
I presumed people were fretting
about a flood.
My panggung house stood
six feet off the ground.
Flood waters would pass underneath.
The thought of it actually gave me a mild sense of satisfaction.
Sometimes the world gives a poor man a break.
VI. I LOOK TO THE WEST
I look to the West
and see the crest of wave
over distant houses,
I begin to run.
I can hear the rumble.
The street is badly paved.
Pebbles cut into my bare feet,
but I keep my arms and legs keep churning.
I follow the road–
right, then left.
Pass a small mosque
and right again,
until I am in front of a fence
of iron bars surrounding a family cemetery.
I look to the East
I see people running toward me, shrieking,
“The river is coming!”
The water was now both ahead of me
and behind me.
usually I am decisive,
but now I have no idea which way to go.
So I simply step back
against the cemetery fence.
I make two fists around the bars.
And wait for the water to hit.
VII. THE LIGHTHOUSE
The lighthouse lost its beacon;
exposed wiring twisted like the top of a candlestick.
The mobile power plant, the electric company’s 3,000-ton seaworthy ship
swept into a neighborhood two miles inland, riding the waves in a curious, serpentine path, swerving just in time to avoid a mosque.
VIII. THE WATER IS WARM
The water is warm,
muddy and sulfurous.
It spins and jerks me.
I can’t see.
I struggle for breath.
I gulp some, salty and foul.
My arms are useless.
Objects strike me,
I feel cut, poked and punched.
Something smacks my left eye.
Then I stop.
My body upside down, pinned
against something flat –
A car, or what seems a car
pushes against me
then slides away.
Finally, the wall breaks apart,
and the water pitches me to the surface.
I gulp for air.
IX. THE DISCOVERY CHANNEL
I look around.
I see only the tops of palm and mango trees.
Is this some new faraway place?
Is this the end of the world?
I recall the prophecy:
On Judgment Day, mountains will rise into the air
like balls of cotton.
But the mountain peaks are still solidly in place.
Perhaps instead, a natural disaster has done the damage.
A tsunami, it is called.
I know the term from the Discovery Channel.
X. MY HEAVEN
I built my life around my family.
“My house is my heaven.”
My husband was in bed with a cold
when the tremor began.
A boy on a bicycle hurried by to say
the prison walls had tumbled.
My husband, the reporter, figured this could be his part in the day’s
He picked up a notebook, a cellphone and his new digital camera.
Before driving off in his Suzuki minivan, he told his girls
“Dad is going out for a while.”
XI. THIS IS NOT THE END
This is not the end of the world.
There were earthquakes, yes.
But now the sun shines brightly above,
the sky has not cracked into pieces
and fallen to the ground.
These are not the world’s final hours.
XII. A MATCHMAKER
lives behind the barracks,
and men apparently continue to think of me
as a good catch.
A proposal from a widower
was recently passed along to me.
But I must maintain the same practical standard
for matrimony that I’ve had since I was a girl:
A husband would have to bring me
fewer troubles instead of more.
(I also don’t like how he looks.)
Vast areas of the city remain empty
Except for a scattering of tents
And cobbled-together shacks.
Vast holes in families
And cobbled-together hearts.
And yet a normalcy of sorts has reestablished itself.
Whatever has happened
Is what Allah willed it to be.
People will made do
People will carry on.
XIV. THIS IS THE HOUSE
This is the house
I used to think of as my ”heaven.”
Some of the walls are still there;
part of a ceiling
rests on the support
of beams that have gone bowlegged.
I stand here
within the incompleteness,
in space once held together
I will rebuild it.
will be the mortar.
XV. THERE IS A HOMEMADE SIGN
There is a homemade sign
hanging by a rope
from a broken pillar.
The sign was made by others,
but in it I find relief
for my impossible sorrow.
“Thank you, Allah,”
the words say.
“The tsunami is a gift
that has brought those we love
We are happy
to let them go.
Commissioned by Haven Trio through the Chamber Music America Classical Commissioning Program, with generous funding provided by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Chamber Music America Endowment Fund.