Head Case

Nance Van Winckel

Large, loud birds. Hot salty breezes. I kept drifting off, dreaming of snow. I felt I wasn’t where I should be, but I didn’t know where “should-be” was. Except, as I told the nurse, I believed it was cold there. In the dreams I’d seen cedars, jagged mountain peaks, and deep snow.

In fairy tales, the one who looks back at you from the mirror is the one who possesses the heavy-duty, otherworldly secrets. That’s how I felt about the one staring at me from the small mirror in the women’s latrine. Her eyes flashed a potent mix of pity and loathing. She had cornrows—with beads!—in her blonde hair. A blue-eyed girl. Gazing at myself, I knew I looked ridiculous. One earring had been ripped from my ear, but the other one I kept touching: a silver-encircled blue stone dangling three tiny silver bells that jingled in the dark of Red Cross Tent 5. Somehow the strange earring was the one thing I felt was mine. Was me.

My finger nudging it nudges me awake. Bright moonlight streams in though the open tent flap. Soon I will get up and go with the older Tent 5 girls, who are from Scotland and speak a language I mostly understand, to feed spoonfuls of a mush the girls call cuss-turd into the mouths of several sad, ailing, elderly survivors. These people have lovely black eyes and caramel hands. One has a dislocated shoulder, another a broken wrist; an ancient man named Win is newly missing three fingers on his right hand which had, years ago, lost the pinky. Now that hand ends in just a thumb.

The Scottish girls call me Peaches. It’s the color nail polish I’m wearing. I have no idea how it came to be on my toenails. We look down at our feet and go silent as we pass tents 9 and 10, inside which are the dead and almost-dead. When the girls look at my toes I know they are thinking, as I am, of the absolute absurdity of polish enduring here where so many lives have been washed completely away, or have washed back to us with broken skulls, missing legs.

“Peaches, your green-shirt lady still can’t get with that custard,” the girl named Jenna says as soon as we’re inside the oldsters’ tent. The woman has not taken off her green shirt—and won’t . . . no matter what quasi-cleaner-one is offered to her. Now she’s shaking her head No, no, no to the Swiss Red Cross man as he holds the plastic custard container down to her.

I slip it from his hand and kneel beside her. Did he really think she’d be able to open it on her own? I watch his legs move to the next person. He’s new. He’s still expecting hope, gratitude.

The woman points to her closed mouth and winces.

“Still,” I say, “you need to eat.” I fill a spoon with some of the gruel. She makes a face anyone would recognize as “yuck,” but she lets me put the spoon gently into her mouth. She closes her eyes as she lets her tongue move through the food. High-calorie sustenance. On the label its contents appear in a language no one here can read. The food, in a blue basket, dropped down to us from a helicopter. When the chopper turned and rattled back across the eerily quiet Andaman Sea, we saw the big red cross on its side.

• •

We heard that people on other continents worried we’d starve. But there are lovely little fish here. When the Phang Nga people say the fish names I think they are singing. The fish wash up around the bodies. Amid the rubble there are small fires all day and fish on sticks, sizzling.

I forget myself. This is what I consider as my response to a question, a blank look, a rolled eye. But I don’t.

Dr. Z says I should be glad to be alive. The way he looks at me when he says this makes me believe it. Or want to.

I do not remember running inland, with the others. I don’t recall grabbing hold of palm branches. But this is what they’ve told me. Hotel Bulbul is no more. Kaput. Kaput is what the kids say about the boats washed ashore and the cars atop the pile of sticks that had been their school. Standing near these sticks and smashed desks, the kids stare at a tattered soggy map of the world. The North Pole is kaput. The inks of many countries have bled into one another.

Cremation fires—embers and small flashes—carry on in the predawn hours. Waking, I feel so new to the world, I think this may be how it’s always been.

This morning on the Scottish girls’ radio we heard men explain shifting tectonic plates. The voices sounded smoothed over by facts: the quake’s rating and from exactly how far below the sea it must have come to heave the water so high. Jenna took a stick and drew lines and arrows in the sand while Karen and I stared down.

A breeze was already mussing up the idea at our feet.

“Yeah, I guess. Maybe,” Karen said.

According to the radio men, a couple microseconds have been shaved off the earth’s rotation.

How to add that to the equation? What equation? Overhead, enormous gray clouds careen into chubby white ones. The pretty yellow-vented bulbuls sing and fly through them.

Lying on grass mats with blue sheets pulled up to their chins, the Scottish girls whisper in the dark. They think I’m sleeping when I’m not. Dead to the world, they say. What a head case.

Although the young Red Cross doctor claims to be Danish, he calls me Fraulein Peach. He asks Do I want to go home?

“I don’t know,” I say.

“Think about it,” he tells me. “The answer will come to you.”

What comes to me is that I might have—as the girl I used to be—mustered up a little crush on him. She would do that, I think. She was just that type.

• •

I’d been awake for three days and before that asleep—comatose, I’m told—for two. I thought maybe in another day or two I’d get hold of myself. I’d recall my town, which everyone was sure was in America. Because of my accent. Also, I didn’t want to have to keep answering to Peaches. Tomorrow in Tent 1 there would be phones set up and no doubt a throng of people queued up to call families, to report in, to say they were safe. Although Hotel Bulbul on Khao Lak Beach was kaput, somehow these folks were alive. A wall of water had come over them but spared them. Day and night, I heard the word miracle. And I felt that yes, surely there was someone I should call. This haunted me more than my missing name and my missing home. My people. Who were my people?

The nurse comes by and says she’ll unbraid my hair and we can give it a good washing, better than the “cursory” one my head had while I was “blotto.” I touch the shaved place where my ten little stitches feel like plastic netting.

“Maybe tomorrow,” I say, which I realize is what I said yesterday to her same kind offer.

I learn about flocculation. Add the packet of aluminum sulfate, stir for five minutes, dump the water through the sand filer, and mix in the chlorine. The sweet doctor’s hands show me how. Voila. I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think whoever I’d been before would do this.

“Peachy-girl,” one of the Scottish girls shouts, “can you catch the rugby kid?”

The kid in the rugby shirt three sizes too big for him has run into the old folks’ tent again. He’s a fireball, that one. Always shouting and laughing, always looking for someone to play a game that involves a set of three small balls. The first time he’d held them up to me, I had no idea what to do. I tried to get him to throw one to me. I mimicked toss and catch.

He thought this was hysterically funny. He bent over laughing.

Then I dropped a blanket over his head of dark curls. That of course was a joke too, but when I jerked the blanket off, he just stared at me darkly.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Sorry,” he imitated. Clearly he was ready to talk. He’d speak whatever language a person spoke to him.

“Peach-Ez,” he says now and shows me the balls again. Then he laughs and takes off running, passing Mr. Win who aims the bandaged hand with its thumb out to stop the boy, but the boy is fast and just veers around Mr. Win.

“Stop,” I call.

The boy turns, smiles at me, then waves and ducks under the closed tent flap.

I follow, thinking I’ll make sure he gets back to his tent okay, to the other dek dek, the kids. But someone is already looking for him, a Thai girl my age, maybe 18 or 20. She yanks the boy’s arm, not hard but authoritatively. Ay Noo, she calls him, which, apparently, is a word I know: kid, boy kid. How do I know this? How do I know this isn’t his name?

• •

As good as dead. That’s what I overheard Karen tell Jenna about how they’d found me: covered with sand, conked out, with a pretty little pink fish, more thoroughly dead, on my chest.

Tectonic plates. The earth shrugged.

Words. Bulbul. Words I don’t know how I know.

I brush my teeth with a new purple toothbrush. The woman in the mirror raises an eyebrow at me. The jingle of my silver earring makes me smile at the one who frowns. The truth is every day I feel less sure, not more, about who I am. My age, for instance. Maybe I’m not so young. Maybe I’m thirty. Jenna says if I were a dog, we could hazard a better guess. Her father’s a veterinarian and he’s shown her how to check the wear on a dog’s molars. The raised eyebrow has two grey hairs among the blonde ones. Did I come with these, I wonder?

What I do remember. I am told to concentrate on this.

This: how no one could walk away from the sea, how the sea came for everyone. The frothy white loveliness before one realized what the wave was, what it intended to do.

The retreating water: its suck, its roar, the flailing limbs, the rainbow of swirling fishes.

Men in yellow hardhats spraying disinfectant on the white plastic-wrapped bodies.

Fires against the night skies, that backdrop of constellations—stars that feel cruel to me now, spiteful.

The unnumbered tent. Its stacks of unfilled coffins. Waiting, waiting.

I head back to Tent 5 and there’s the boy pointing to himself. “Sun,” he says, a pronunciation perhaps closer to soon. So he is named. I’m happy. And jealous.

Sun and I walk towards the oldsters’ tent, passing the nurse who points to my silly braids and shakes her head. The soap will hurt, I know, when it hits the stitched-up hole through which a part of me has leached out.

Then Jenna and Karen come out of Tent 12, crying. No one we know in there was supposed to die, so as soon as I see the girls’ faces I am crying too. Those are our charges in there. The girls take my hands.

I move to open the tent flap.

“No, Peach,” says Jenna.

“Peach, no,” says Karen.

“It’s Green-lady. Dr. Z says we should wait out here.” Jenna wipes her face with her shirttail.

“Wait with us,” Karen says. She squeezes my hand.

We wait. Sun squats by my knee. I’m wishing I’d stayed longer with the old woman, wishing I’d unloaded more spoonfuls of the awful gruel into her ravaged mouth. I feel a small cool finger cross my big toe’s nail, and when I glance down, I see that Sun is scratching off the few specks of color—like a light dusting of coral—that remain.

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