On a shimmering beach in Thailand a man was leading a placid elephant back and forth to entertain German tourists when the sudden tsunami swamped the coastline on Boxing Day. The elephant’s natural instinct to flee the oncoming water saved the life of a terrified young girl who had been riding on his back, for fun.
A viewpoint’s here in the photo (printed in Der Spiegel, reprinted from the Bangkok Post) of the ballooning, sun-scorched bodies of drowned tourists strewn like driftwood up and down the beach at Khao Lak. The tide has pulled their shorts down around their ankles. Some pitiful spell of similarity has been cast over each one of them: the rigor mortis transforming into bloat will make them all outstretch their arms as if for the sky’s embrace. Nude and helpless, they’re profound infants on their backs, waiting for mother nature to finish changing them. Two corpses resting intimately were, in their last moments, a half-kilometer away from each other when the freight train of the tsunami arrived carrying its immense cargo. Faces blacken with rot, swell. European is indistinguishable from Asian, so the actual tally of each nation’s dead will long elude them. The anguished rush to photograph and identify everybody before the mass cremation on the beach will be, for the Thai emergency workers in face masks, a kind of second tsunami. A tidal wave of well-examined faces will tumble forever within the living searcher’s mind.
The Germans, perhaps due to their history, have more facility with the ghastly photo than the squeamish American press which shies away from showing the truth of dead bodies. The sublime is never shown. I would never call it beautiful, or delightful, exactly, but when I look at a photo of the clustered drowned I feel, along with revulsion, a frisson of some unspeakable satisfaction. Not “ha-ha, I’m alive and you’re not.” It’s that the vastness of nature’s destructive power drives home how my own capacity’s limited, calls out for the final sacrifice of my imagination, and I have to turn instead to some box of inner reason to expand and contain that endless strand of lumped-together dead. And that awful self-enlargement is a test, a confrontation. Why do bad things happen to good people. It helps that you are distant and can’t make out their faces. The photo’s reprinted several times, passed around from one press agency to the next, and this creates an empathic cushion between the observer and the tsunami’s merciless tropical somersault. Why even ask anymore. The tsunami’s total energy was equivalent to five megatons of TNT, more than twice the energy used in all of WWII’s explosions, including the two atomic bombs. Waves hit Vancouver from their source in Indonesia. The entire planet vibrated in its orbit one centimeter, from the quake. In the minutes preceding a tsunami strike the sea often shrinks temporarily from the coast, a rare sight which induces people, especially starving, curious kids, to approach, to collect the field of stranded fish suddenly left exposed. Approximately a third of the dead were children. Their final question in the dark — “must I?” — wasn’t sturdy enough to resist the persuasion of the Indian Ocean’s waves.
— Jesse Hilson is a freelance reporter living in the Catskills in New York State. His work has appeared in or will appear in AZURE, Maudlin House, Rejection Letters, Pink Plastic House, Expat Press, APOCALYPSE CONFIDENTIAL, Heavy Feather Review, DFL Lit, Excuse Me Mag, and elsewhere. His debut crime novel Blood Trip was published in 2022 by Close to the Bone. He is the founding editor of Prism Thread. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @platelet60 and he operates a Substack newsletter at cholorohemoglobin.substack.com