Sunday, March 06, 2011
Tom's New Zealand: Atlantis
The earthquake filled our house with dust. As soon as the first jolt struck, rooms were filled by walls as old cinderblocks shed their mortar and shifted atop one another. The outside came rushing in. Sunshine first peeked then glared through holes in the walls and roof: piled bricks, poor and arbitrary boundaries.
An aunt was at work at the chemists' in Redcliffs, glass shelves hurling last season's perfumes across the room: unbridled Obsession, dangerous Euphoria. She doesn't remember being knocked off her feet: only that one second she was standing; the next, sprawled over the counter. A portly regular hurled himself atop her as a shield from the onslaught of expired Eternity and unwelcome Escape.
The hip-for-the-kidz facade of my little brother's school leapt from the building's cold and sullen hulk in an undisguised attempt on his life. Joe was too fast for the depredations of this unmasked engine of obliteration, and that instant became a microcosm of his young life: peak experience wrung from another moment escaping smiling-faced and lethal education's attempts at a Saturnine morning tea.
A neighbor was working in an office block overlooking the Square before the jolt threw him toward the Cathedral, plate-glass all that kept him from falling five stories, allowing him the spectacle of the Cathedral's spire spiraling down into the quadrangle. He rushed from the building and started running.
My girlfriend Hilary was thrown from a treadmill at the University's rec center. All the lights went out and she was herded from the pitch-black building. Ushered into clear daylight and a free-standing campus, she was presented by no sign that this was anything more than a slightly larger aftershock. She quickly became annoyed at the center's refusal to allow her back into the building to get her things. “Are you alright?” I asked from within her phone from within her locker from within the evacuated center.
The Port Hills were doing jumping jacks, leaping two feet in the air and spraying geologic dandruff. A boulder the size of a van effortlessly bisected one building on the section and careened down the hill demanding shelter in another. Cast out and sent onto the watercourse that forms the main artery through the property, the mighty stone would be unable to find satisfaction: seeking to end its journey in our spa pool, the huge rock instead upended the entire tub and came to a stop just short of the deck. Hard to avoid some measure of sympathy for even so destructive and burdensome a beast.
“I'll protect you!” yelled the fat man atop my aunt. “I've been wanting to do this for years!” She felt his hot breath on her neck as boulders rolled down the suburb's eponymous crags, disparate rocks becoming One and Free.
“I can't find my father,” our friend Ashley told Joe, “but there's too many people hurt. I can't leave to look for him.” He spent the afternoon pulling bodies living and dead from the wreckage of the Colombo Run: by his estimate, he retrieved two corpses for every survivor.
Our neighbor ran until he reached Hagley Park. There oblivious strollers, seeing his suit, took him for a visiting businessman and urged him to be calm, that a little shake was normal here in Christchurch. “You don't understand,” he told them, “I've just seen the Cathedral come down.”
“I've seen a lot of dead people,” Joe told me as he walked up the driveway. He walked past a bus crumpled by falling masonry, dimly registering crushed human forms inside. He saw an old man being tended to by emergency services; the man's face had been half knocked from his head. Walking down Colombo Street and through Sydenham, Joe saw streets lined with the body-bags and hastily blanketed corpses that, mere weeks earlier, Ngapuhi kaumatua Gray Theodore had prophesied for Wellington.
The fat man got off my aunt. They haven't spoken since.
Ashley found his father.
Hilary still doesn't have her phone.
Joe, fed up with living in so notoriously seismic a city, took advantage of compassionate airfares and booked a holiday in San Francisco.
Christchurch, never again a solid physical place, now becomes forever alive and frozen at the moment of destruction: the immaterial arena surrounded (as a friend beautifully reminds us) by Baxter's “mountains crouch[ing] like tigers.”
A place where shyster priest Arthur Worthington once pointed through the glass of a shattered lamp toward true reality; where boulders rain like dark karakea onto the beach at Tuawera, onto which a vengeful magician once conjured a poison whale against his enemies. A place of narratives and experiences, of memories and quake moments, streets forever trod by those who'll never tell their stories.