The Man Who Sailed His House

In this month’s GQ, Michael Paterniti writes a remarkable story of a Japanese man named Hiromitsu who survived the March 11 earthquake and subsequent tsunami. Not only is the story incredible, but so is the narration (you here are this man, experiencing the catastrophe in the present):

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.

A description of the approaching tsunami:

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.

Just an incredible descriptive paragraph here:

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?

The experience of being out at sea, and deciding: should I drink? Should I eat? Can I?

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. 

Hiromitsu forces himself from going to sleep, and soon experiences hallucinations. Frightening:

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.

And what of the rescue?

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…

This is a story of survival, love, and loss. Hiromitsu lost his wife to the tsunami, but he carries her memory:

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.

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