Not long after the tsunami blocked out the sun and crashed onto the hot sand and swallowed whole the unsuspecting countries of the region, I found myself in the box of a pickup truck travelling a southerly direction. With the floodwaters receded, the wide-eyed dry goods grocer — his wife in the passenger seat beside him — barrelled us down the number four highway from Krabie to Hat Yai, each wild turn diminishing my hopes for a safe journey to the Malaysian border.
Why I cared about yet another stamp in my passport when there were boats stuck up in trees, a flat-bottomed sampan for instance, is hard to say. “Never let your visa even come close to expiration,” Martin had told me. “Never draw attention to yourself. Never give them a reason to suspect you.” I could hear his ever-prominent warnings (well known in this trade) even as I looked up at the rotting keel of the sampan: a long, soggy mass of pulp and splinters wedged between the limbs of a giant palm, the wave having thrown it from the shallows of the bay.
Seawater dripped from the fronds. An isolated rainfall beneath a twisted tree. The drops hit Alison’s forehead as she looked up at it. When she finally lowered her head and turned to face me, I couldn’t tell what was seawater and what was the stuff of tears. When I kissed her they tasted the same.
Of course Alison turned away from me. Disgusted. Determined. She concentrated her efforts on trying to help. Put her name on volunteer lists. Told me she had a karmic responsibility.
She didn’t need to do the run. Plenty of days left on her visa. But she had said she’d come with me, just for the hell of it. Though that was before the wave turned this place into a crumpled and soggy heap of ruin.
She had arrived only three weeks prior, embarking on the all too ubiquitous gap-year sojourn that swarms this part of the world. But she was different than most of the white bodies who in newly purchased rucksacks wander displaced and scattered across this sliver of the Asian continent. Not everyone needs a natural disaster to experience homelessness. The privileged seek it out in casual flirtations. They are easy to spot, and Alison was always kind to them, those targets of skin tax and swindle. Sunburnt thighs, over-lotioned shoulders, a reeking miasma of sandalwood and aloe vera. Some just-purchased tchotchke they mistook for culture tucked under their arm. A loose grip on a jug of red vodka. The constant sanitizing of hands. Conversations about the woes of malaria meds. One need only read Lonely Planet to sum up their experience. The day I met Alison I told her that Thailand is to travellers what parking lots are to drivers. She said that everyone has to start somewhere.
I didn’t know that the last time I’d see her would be when from across the sodden, amorphous earth I watched her put on a white vest and work with all the other people in white vests as they gathered detritus and piled it on the margins of plain sight. I told her I’d be back, that as soon as I was legal again I’d return to help. I’d put on a white vest too. Though I wonder if my plan to return would have been as hasty had she not been there. I wonder if I would have known I would never return, if the image of the ocean receding from the shore had been sharper in my mind.
So as usual, the ride was one I took alone. The buses weren’t running of course and my Yamaha was underwater somewhere. When I started on foot down the number four I asked myself who would possibly pick up a hitchhiker when the world looked like it had come out the unseen end of a toilet pipe. But there I was, stuffed between plastic bags of groceries and gallon-jugs of water. The wind blowing past me all manner of possibility and demise. Southbound in the box of a rusty pickup.
* * *
Once you get to the border crossing the whole thing takes less than thirty minutes. Queue in the pedestrian lane. Receive the slanted look of vague annoyance from the guard. Display passport. Receive stamp. Give thanks. Turn north. Repeat. And you got yourself another thirty days.
But things seldom turn out the way we think they will.
My companions, the grocer and his wife, their eyes fixed on the road before them, anticipated each turn. And I, with my back against the cab and my limbs grown between the spaces of cargo, braced myself on the sides of the box. The man steered haphazardly, he pointed the truck rather than driving it. He sought speeds I thought impossible, the horsepower peaked, the engine hot and whining. One of the few times I managed to look into the cab from the back window, I saw the RPM needle jumping like a wild mechanical metronome, like a windshield wiper trying desperately to keep up with a down-pouring torrent.
When they had pulled off the road to pick me up and motioned for me to climb aboard, the grocer didn’t even fully stop the vehicle. He just slowed down enough for me to get a foot on the wheelwell. Before I could fold myself into the cargo he resumed his excessive and dangerous pilotage, almost throwing me from the box. I didn’t know it at the time but both he and his wife wore their faces with heavy looks of anxiety. They didn’t turn around or take notice of me for some time but when the grocer finally slid the rear window open and from the corner of his mouth spoke to me in broken, feverish sentences, I could tell he was distraught, his words mixing with the wind and flying out behind us. I caught every second or third phrase. They lived in Hat Yai. They owned a small grocery store. Their two daughters, from whom they had not heard since the wave had swallowed the coast, attended a vocational college in Satun.
The stretch of highway ran along a ridge, a tight ribbon of road. For whatever reason, it took my gaze falling upon the shoreline below to swell within me the full measure of the recent events. The gravity of disaster situations. A society devastated by natural calamity. The square shapes and right angles that so clearly indicate the habitats of man, those that I had seen stretch along this coast for many years were gone. In their place were oblong shadows, queer ellipsis of darkness fringed by pilings and foundations, the skeletal remains of buildings. Shapes, wildly distorted and irregular. Inclusions cut deep into the once civil landscape. Heaps of concrete and tile, rebar whiskers tickled the damp air. Detritus of unknown composition, its previous configuration a mystery. Lengths of bamboo were strewn everywhere, littered across the shoreline, which from my elevated perspective looked like millions of burnt matchsticks. The floating wreckage seemingly extended the beach out from the land, like a black and broken slick of oil.
As the sun started to dip into the sea, I imagined Alison in her white vest, in the midst of the concrete rubble that made up the whole world below — the built environment in shambles at her feet, around her the natural one battered and limp. My gaze shifted to the sea and a shameful and otherwise troubling feeling of insignificance crept into my stomach. The juxtaposition of sea and land is always striking, but to think that the setting sun on this day was one of the most remarkable I have seen… Bright needles of light shooting from the ocean horizon hemmed the sky in smears of orange. The stratus clouds were long pieces of violet patchwork. The whole sky ran wet with watercolours and fused celestial and brilliant into that strange fear and awe that comprises the most profound moments of sublimity.
The road quickly dropped off and twisted down in a series of switchbacks and then returned to sea level where, thankfully, it ran flat and straight. The grocer’s erratic driving became less pronounced, the diminishing light ostensibly slowing us. Just as night descended, the smell of the ocean more present than usual, I found the darkness to be cloaked in a wet and awful stillness that was unbecoming even the strange evenings of the tropics. When we pulled over, much too soon for us to be at Hat Yai, I knew, I jumped from the box and landed with an unforeseen splash. My feet hit the dark and submerged highway, bits of floating debris spilled over the tops of my shoes.
My companions and I stood on the asphalt shore of a large dark lake. The highway quickly disappeared under the surface of the water. We could see it rise up again about two kilometers away like a black serpent ascending from waters blanketed with ash. The intermittent glow of the next township flickered at unpredictable intervals in the distance. Yet the blackness effortlessly absorbed the cones of light from the front of the truck. For a few moments, the three of us stood in silence, staring out at the floodwaters until unexpectedly the grocer started to pull at his hair and gasp in deep, asphyxiating inhalations followed by clotted and desperate respires of spit. His wife was silent until her partner, his face dripping with tears and snot, moved slowly forward and began to walk into flood.
* * *
I first saw Alison from across the plounge at Hitomi’s Hammock Bar. She sat by herself on the bamboo deck, sandy flip-flops kicked off at the steps. Faded fabrics that I remembered when they were new and bright, were draped in the corners, hanging above orange Isan cushions. It was early so the empty hammocks smiled at each other across the width of the space. She sat at a low table, a fruit shake sweating in plastic stemware, thumbing the pages of a book. When I sat at the table next to her, our eyes met for a moment. And that is how we started, Alison and I. With a practiced grip on her chopsticks she brought little pinches of rice noodle and tofu up to her mouth. We sipped fruit shakes and chatted. A print of the Great Wave of Kawakawa hung on the wall. The gnarly curls of the wavetips reaching above Mt. Fugi.
Noticing her book, The Healing Power of Gemstones, I said, “You’re interested in crystals?”
“In a way,” she said. And then more quietly, “I’m constructing a bangle,” and she went on to tell me her vision for a nine-stone armband—a Navaratna—that she planned on wearing around her bicep. The correct sattvic gemstones, she told me, when in contact with the skin, considerably boosts the electro-magnetic frequency in the mind and body. Our beings, if karmically unsettled, can better return to equilibrium when we are in contact with certain stones. She said the whole thing was an effort to enhance her personal magnetism.
“And Thailand being the world’s largest gem exchange, you thought you’d come here.”
“Among other reasons,” she said.
When we paid our bills and slipped our toes into our sandals, I asked if she’d like to get a drink later that evening. There was a pretty good cover band that played down the beach, toward Railay. “I’m usually there shortly after sunset,” I said. Alison smiled and said she’d wander over.
It was after we had hung out for a couple days that Alison showed me the stones she had picked up in Silom. “I’m going to get the rest on my way back,” she said, after she finished her research on which gemstones would best suit her, astrologically. I looked at the stones on the bed. I picked up each one individually, turning them over in my palm. It was typical shit. A high degree of inclusions, in the corundum especially. “You know this has been heat treated,” I said, holding up the ruby.
“Yeah, a little bit, but most of them are nowadays,” she said knowingly.
I smiled at her. Her confidence. Her bright copper curls. “It’s been brought almost to melting point,” I said. “And is probably glass-filled.”
Alison was quiet for a moment. Then, like she processed the implications of this as fast as I could say the words, she asked how I could tell. I knew I was getting comfortable with her because I pulled my loop out and examined the corundum, the knuckle of my thumb resting against my cheek. “If I know the current state of Thai rubies, chances are a stone this bright has gone through an extreme change in temperature, and then glass was used to fill the inclusions.”
“And why would you know the current state of Thai rubies?”
“The lab would have to confirm this, but the chromium oxide atoms are huge, like beach balls as opposed to a billiard balls. If you believe in all that ayurvedic stuff, then this ruby will…”
“I know, do nothing for me.”
“That’s right. The molecular lattice has been fused.”
I brought the loop down and flipped the lens back into the handle. “It’s pretty, though. It even looks like a proper pigeon blood, but it’s no longer a crystal.” I reached down and picked up the boron silicate. “The tourmaline looks pretty good though, Sri Lankan probably.” And Alison picked the sparkling, trillion-cut, watermelon gemstone out of my hand, tossed it on the bed, and said, “other people shouldn’t touch it, and then she placed her hand on my forearm and gently pulled me towards her.
For eleven days we behaved like it was our honeymoon. Boat trips to Phi Phi, dinners on the beach, expensive rooms with soft beds where we’d spend hours in each other’s arms. I felt like a tourist and I didn’t care.
* * *
I played images of Alison in my mind as I swam on my back in the floodwaters that had swallowed the highway. Strong frog kicks that felt like they got me nowhere, the weight of my rucksack absorbing the thrust. As I tired, the pleasant imaginings faded, and I saw Alison in her white vest standing over a row of blanketed bodies.
The grocer’s wife had taken a hold of his shirt as he moved forward into the floodwaters. He turned to face her and they cried and argued. My Thai isn’t good enough to catch the nuances, but I figured the grocer, after being talked out of abandoning the truck and swimming across, wanted to build a raft out of fallen trees and the water jugs from the back of the truck, and he set about emptying the pickup of anything that might aid this endeavour. His wife, pleading with him though her own sobs, tried to convince him to circumnavigate the floodwaters and go to Hat Yai by another route. I knew the number four was the road with the highest elevation for quite some distance, and I agreed with him, to circumnavigate would take almost a whole day.
I jumped in the back of the pickup with the motivation to ostensibly help in the construction of a raft, but as the pair quarrelled I grabbed my rucksack and slipped from the box.
I walked until the water was at waist height. Then took my rucksack off my back and carried it at the shoulder. Cries, more hysterical now, came from behind me. They echoed off the water that ahead of me shimmered sporadically from the lights in the distance — shifting flickers that came from the opposite shore. With each flicker came a brief reflected image, like for a few seconds an electric current charged the surface of the water and played before me a memory that had previously been incomplete. The white flashes strangely powered me to move on. I walked deeper into the water, balancing the rucksack on my head for as long as I could. By the time the water was up to my nose, I gave up trying to keep anything dry, and let the ruck fall off my head. For some reason, I was surprised to see it float. I spun around and swam, frog kicking, the sternum strap in my hand, towing the rucksack in my wake.
The night before the wave hit, Alison and I were dancing to the band that played on Railay Beach. I remember the song, Is This Love, because we sang along to each other and both knew and silently accepted that it probably wasn’t. About half way through the song I saw Martin across the sand, sitting at the bar with a Singha in his hand, watching us. When the song finished I left Alison and walked towards the surf where I knew Martin would want to talk.
“Nice to see you’re having fun, as usual,” he said. “Not corrupting her too much, I hope. And not affecting your schedule.”
“Little affects my schedule,” I said.
“Well, you got time for a little jaunt to Singapore, I hope. Nice stuff coming in from Africa. It’ll be a quick one. You could do it in seventy-two hours.”
“I have a visa to renew anyway,” I said.
Now, it was like a dark fabric had been spread out on the wind and fallen over everything known and unknown. I kicked in the black water, slowly watching my former companions shrink from view, their cries distant now, the headlights of the truck growing dimmer.
Sean Allingham is the third place winner in the 2016 running of the HHLLC prose contest. Winnipeg-born, he is completing a degree in English and critical theory at the University of Toronto. He is pursuing critical literary and cultural studies at McMaster University in 2016-17. His writings have appeared in Hart House Review (2013), Pressed: English Literary Journal of Taiwan, and the Occupy Wall Street Poetry Anthology.