Two if by sea, p.1
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Two if by Sea


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  For Marty

  For Susan

  Forever

  ONE

  SO MANY THINGS happen when people can’t sleep.

  It was always hot in Brisbane, but that night was pouty, unsettling. After getting Natalie and her family comfortable in their rooms at the inn, Frank couldn’t rest. His leg plagued him. The toll of oppressive weather on that kind of old injury was no old farmer’s myth. He rambled around, briefly joining Natalie’s brother Brian in the bar on the beach, then painfully mounting the switchbacked decks of wooden stairs that led to a kind of viewing platform just adjacent to the car park, looking out over Bribie Island Beach. Up there, he hoped the signal would be good enough to call home, his home, if home is the place you started. For Frank, that would always be a ramshackle horse farm in south-central Wisconsin—now probably more ramshackle than when he last saw it, three years before. As the brrrrr on the other end began, his pulse quickened. He looked up at the sky and thought of all the calls darting through the sea of radio waves tonight, swift as swallows—dutiful, hopeful, wistful, sad.

  “Frank?” His sister, Eden, answered, her voice holiday-bright and holiday-brittle, suddenly next to him across nine thousand miles. He was about to ask her to summon his mother to the phone so they could all talk together when he saw it. Without thinking, and without another word to Edie, he let his phone slip into his jeans pocket.

  He could not figure out what it was.

  He would never remember it as a wave.

  Wave was too mere a word.

  Although there were hundreds of photos and pieces of film, some shot just at the moment, near this very spot, Frank could look at these and remain curiously unmoved. But should he close his eyes and let himself return, the sick sweats would sweep down his breastbone, a sluice of molten ice. He would hear again the single dog’s one mournful howl, and feel the heavy apprehension, something like that moment from his days as a uniform cop when a routine traffic stop went completely to shit and a fist came flying in from nowhere, but monumentally worse. So much worse that it routed even imagination. Many years later, Frank would think, this was his first sight of the thing that would sweep away the center of his life in the minutes after midnight, and, by the time the sun rose, send surging into his arms the seed of his life to come.

  Just like that. Like some mythical deity with blind eyes that took and gave unquestioned.

  He saw the wave as a gleaming dam, built of stainless steel, standing upright in the misty moonlight, fifty feet tall and extending for half a mile in either direction. Then, as it collapsed in place, it was water, surging lustily forward and drowning every building on the beach, including the Murry Sand Castle Inn, where Frank’s pregnant wife and her entire extended family lay asleep. For one breath, Frank saw the inn, its porch strung with merry lanterns, red and gold and green, and in the next breath, he saw everything disappear, every light go out, faster than it was possible to think the words that could describe it.

  He shouted, “No!” and stumbled forward to make his way down the high tiers of wooden stairs he had only just ascended.

  Hoarse, in the distance, another voice called, “No!” over a cascade of sound—the brittle pop of breaking glass, screams peppering the air like gunshot, and the throaty insistence of the water.

  Even as Frank turned, the mud-colored tide was boiling up the stairs and leaping the boardwalk barricade. He plunged forward, trying to wade against it, to find the riser of the wooden steps, but there was nothing; his foot bounced against water; he was soaked to the thigh. Pulling himself up along the top rail of the fence, for he would certainly be able to see something of the inn from there, or at least hear something, he shouted, “Natalie!” There were no voices. No lights except the milky smear from the hotels and office towers far in the distance to his left, like a frill of fallen stars. No sound except the insistent gossip of the water, and he was wet now to his waist. Grateful that he was still at least relatively young and passably fit, Frank hauled himself over the fence. He skip-sprinted across the car park, to their little Morris Mini-Minor. Water was already frothing around the tires. Frank pulled open the door, throwing himself into the seat, fumbling for his keys, quickly gaining the highway.

  He stopped again and got out.

  He heard a man’s voice cry, “Help! Who’s there . . . ?” and then again the swallowing silence. Floodwater rocked at the verge of the road; now how many feet above sea level? Of the two of them, Natalie was, pound for pound, by far the stronger, fitter, even tougher. Of the two of them, she was also the more intrepid, the more likely to have found some way to outsmart and elude this cliff of tides. They would find each other, and he did her no service by stalling here, forsaking his own life for no purpose. Natalie would have hated him for that. He floored it, racing inland. Miles sloughed away and he felt rather than saw the dark shapes of other cars congealing around him.

  At last, there was nowhere to move, and all the cars had to stop and Frank got out and walked.

  Others walked, too.

  An old man struggled under the weight of a gray-lipped girl. She was perhaps ten or eleven years old and her sweet, lifeless face had closed in a smile, her nose and eyes pouring saltwater tears. Frank saw a young woman wearing just one shoe. She clutched a bundle of wet clothes, among them a child’s small jersey embroidered with cross-stitched Santas. A man Frank’s own age sat sobbing near a great blooming evergreen frangipani. Frank avoided their eyes. He thought he might be able to get to a place where he could think, but he only walked farther. He met people hiking toward him, or saw them sitting in their cars, or standing still by the roadside, their hands like the pendulums of broken clocks. After some time, he came upon a large group gathered around a car whose young driver had removed his outsized speakers from the dash. A basso radio voice intoned, “Now you will hear that the tsunami happened because of climate change, friends. You will hear that it struck our coast because of a tropical storm deep in the Pacific. You will hear that this was a random event. But do you believe that? How can any man believe that it was coincidence that water swept into the Sodom of Brisbane on this very hallowed night? Intelligent people will say that we have failed to take care of our earth. But the Lord God Almighty does not care about the climate. He cares about the climate of our souls! As it says in Matthew, ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.’ And so it has come . . .”

  Frank walked around a curve in the road, and the preacher’s voice faded to a series of thumps, like the bass notes of a song from a car passing the open window of Frank’s childhood bedroom on the farm. A pale vein of light lolled on the horizon.

  It would soon be dawn, on Christmas morning.

  TWO

  DARKNESS GAVE WAY to a dreary matte pearl, and Frank noticed that the park where he sat was a cemetery.

  Outside of Brisbane, there was so much sheer breadth of land that every dear departed citizen could have had a square mile for a tomb, yet this was one of the streamlined modern kinds of mortuary parks, with flat brass markers, built for economy of space. There were a few benches for lingering, but altogether, it looked more like a game board than a place to greet majestic eternity.

  How he’d chosen this small rise, he had no idea. All he knew was that he faced away from the city. Before he looked down, Frank wanted to think logically through the sequence of the night—the family party, the announcement of Natalie
s new pregnancy and their sudden decision to move back to the United States, the toasts before hot meat pies and lamingtons, the four huge Donovan brothers socking and slapping him to the point of pain, which was what passed for congratulation in Natalie’s big, physically big, and boisterous family. The distress was in stringing together those acutely joyous moments, which even as they happened Frank knew were as perishable as the African iris his mother grew in her little greenhouse, an exquisite buttery bloom that lived only a single day. They filled his head and whirled with the plaintive howl of the dog back there in the darkness, the howl that must have merged with the roar of water—he heard it now with some third ear, booming and sucking.

  Natalie!

  How could any sensible word or image press through sounds like that?

  Someone must have survived.

  Nothing down there had survived.

  Nothing could have lived through that.

  But if he had been craven to leave her to die, was he not more so to abandon all hope of her survival? He had to hope, at least, although it made him feel like the grannies at his mother’s church who could stand at the bedside of an eighty-pound ruin barely visible in a tentacled web of ghostly sheets and murmur words of encouragement.

  As marriage was a triumph of hope over logic, so must be a husband’s belief. His own eyes told him one thing, but he did not have to put all his faith in that one thing. Eyes lied. When he was a rookie, he had learned the nature of eyewitnesses. Eyewitnesses, people with mortgages and diplomas, had seen cougars walking on their hind legs through Grant Park. Eyewitnesses swore that the man in line behind them, a professor from Jamaica with horn-rims and a British accent, had pulled the trigger, when, in fact, the shooter was a ringer for Johnny Cash.

  The way back to where Frank had left his car was long, perhaps four miles. He hurried, his breath coming faster, in rhythm with the staccato xylophone hammering of his heart, in the hitching hop-jog that was his only gait faster than a walk. The sun barely up, it was already warm, nearly eighty degrees by the feel of it, the height of Queensland’s epic hot season. The palms, restless and dry, rattled above him. Far off, sirens keened, whooped, blended, in a chorus that peaked and fell. He needed to get to his cell phone. Natalie had been an athlete all her life, and was a strong swimmer, with the reflexes of a teenage point guard. Her job had trained her to make instant decisions under enormous stress.

  Natalie. As though he were paging through an album, he viewed a deck of her expressions—the gamine and entirely-on-purpose flirtatious glance from under lowered lashes, the opaque concentration in the face of a disastrous injury that verged on a glare, the mirth that opened her lips, passion that clamped them . . . it was not possible that the last time he had seen Natalie was the last time he would see Natalie. Frank remembered police training that taught rookies to stop a sneeze by slamming a fist into their thigh. He did this now, punching his bad leg ferociously to dodge the thrall of tears he had no time to indulge.

  It worked.

  Frank pictured his mind as a rubber truncheon he could grasp and twist. She could have survived.

  Her brother was right; he’d once said Natalie was like an action figure.

  He thought of her making bins of things to toss or donate in preparation for their move to the United States, nattering about how she would no longer have to be envious of Brian and Hugh, who’d spent their junior years abroad there and could both do a very passable Brooklyn accent. Like most Australians, Natalie conceived the United States as a series of landmarks arrayed close together: the Statue of Liberty right next to the Grand Canyon, with the Hollywood sign tucked between. She wanted to see everything, all during the first week, with a nursing infant in tow.

  Frank almost smiled. She could be looking for him even now.

  At that moment, as if in answered prayer, the cell phone rang.

  If he hadn’t been so physically tired, he’d have made it to the front seat of the serviceable old Mini he’d bought when he moved from Chicago. He’d left the passenger door thrown open. There on the seat were his mobile phone and the wallet he habitually removed from his pocket to stave off the old and scolding pain that fishhooked from lower hip to upper calf. Neither had been touched. The mobile went silent a single second before Frank could grab it.

  Fumbling, he depressed the button.

  The screen did not light up with the number composed mostly of eights, Natalie’s favorite numeral—the number he always saw because he was too lazy to program in her name or photo.

  Instead, he saw another familiar number, the origin of seventeen unheard voicemails. He felt crushed, literally stomped. But why should he? How ridiculous to expect Natalie to have a phone, her own phone.

  How stupid was he?

  His poor family at home. Of course. Eden. Mom. He should listen. He must at least listen.

  “Frank!” his sister said. “Call us! Mom is frantic. I am frantic.” He thought of the sweet and subdued Christmas Eve at Tenacity, the horse farm in Wisconsin where Frank’s mother still lived with Frank’s much-younger sister. Eden would be finished now with all but one semester of graduate school. And his grandfather, old Jack Mercy, at ninety-six slipped away into the muck of dementia, how was Jack holding up? Just before he left for Australia, Frank spent the day with Jack, and remembered comparing the old man’s gaze to that of a bear he’d once seen—no cunning, no amusement, no plan, only flooding, baffled hunger. Still powerful and rangy after a life spent wrestling horses and throwing bags and bales, Jack had balled his fist and socked Frank’s mother, Hope, so hard that she staggered and nearly fell, then threw his food at Hope, his rages seemingly only for her. It worried Frank, but there was no point bringing it up. Hope was just twenty when she married Frank’s father, fourteen years her senior. Jack was the only father that Hope had now, since both her parents died in 1960 in the Park Slope air disaster. Whatever he did, Hope loved Jack still, with a foundling passion.

  “Please be okay, Frank,” Eden said. “Please call us back!”

  Frank listened to a previous message.

  In that one, an hour earlier, Eden didn’t even speak directly to him. She addressed their mother: “He isn’t answering. Mom, who should we call? Can we call anybody? It’s a disaster area.”

  The phone chimed yet again. Answer it, Frank thought. Just say a word.

  If the situations were reversed, he would have gone mad. All Frank had to do to end their agony, or at least temper it, was to press a button. But he simply could not summon the will. Here, inside this, he had no will to speak to them. At this moment, he was no more than enclosed space, breathing. How to rejoice for his own survival? How even to agree to rejoice for it, for the sake of others?

  Go on and call, he thought, and almost pressed the return dial. Then he didn’t.

  Instead, he thought, he hadn’t even told them about the baby. It didn’t seem pressing enough to call before Christmas. And Frank was sly. All the Mercy family liked surprises. Perhaps he wouldn’t tell them at all and they would show up after the baby’s birth, with Natalie already fit again, his mother’s first grandchild, a summer babe, just weeks old, in arms. It was a passing thought. Frank had intended, or perhaps intended, to tell them that night—the bow on top of the huge crate of gifts that Natalie had already sent. Every ritual of family was beloved to Natalie, as to all her Donovan tribe, and she reveled so much in her first big run at the hols as an in-law that Frank accused her of having butchered and packaged a wallaby: the box weighed as much as if it had been filled with ore. “But I didn’t have the chance last year!” she said. “We’d only just been married. I got them . . . a fruit basket or some daft thing!”

  Earlier, Frank had said something about his wife’s having spent half the GNP of Australia on Christmas. Natalie’s brother Brian, one ale to the good of sense, guffawed.

  “No one goes for prezzies more than my sister!” Brian said. “Think of that whenever she says to just give her something simple and ignore it, broth
er-in-law of mine! You’ll have a happy marriage, then. I remember her little, not just counting out what was under the tree but using my mum’s sewing tape to measure the parcels to make sure that none of us got bigger than she did!”

  The bartender interrupted then, muttering, “More of this bollocks . . .” They all quieted to listen to the curiously electronic voice of the announcer at the Pacific Storm Prediction Centre. Brian was a TV newsman—something of a celebrity in Brisbane—and the barkeep pulled another ale for Brian and asked why everyone got a big stiffie over every tropical depression when they came to nothing.

  “It should be called the Watching Tropical Storms Happen Centre,” Brian told the bartender. “Not the Prediction Centre. They’ve never predicted a single damn storm.” He sipped his ale. “The tide came way in tonight, though, farther than I’ve ever seen it here.”

  “It does that when someone farts in Japan,” said the barkeep, and Frank remembered laughing. Laughing! But then, anyone might have laughed. Whoever really believed that the thing you feared most would come to pass? Last night, the barkeep had been getting ready to close when Frank got up to make his call. As Brian rummaged for some bills in his pocket, the bartender had said, “No, no. These rounds are on us, lads. Drink up. I’ve managed to miss midnight Mass, so I’m happy, but my bride was already plenty pissed I had to work on Christmas Eve. She said the grandkids were desolate. But I think it’s she who’s desolate because my daughter and her fiancé, two kids and they’ve finally got engaged, if you please, they went out pubbing.”

  That man must be dead now, floating open-eyed like a figure in an old Alice in Wonderland woodcut, white on gray, with lamps and teacups and tables and chairs and spoons swirling around him. It seemed untrue. Families stumbled into the station house all the time—into the hospital, into the morgue—pleading proximity. He can’t be dead. I just saw him tonight at the bowling alley . . . and Frank understood the audacity of fate’s disregard for logical progression.

 
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