The Queen of the Sea
The Smoking Poet - Summer 2008
First Place Winner: Grace Delobel
Saturday, August 16, 2008
The 7:32 to Galle was running seven minutes late when it pulled out of Colombo’s station on Boxing Day, overloaded as usual. It always was a popular run, but that year the Buddhist full moon festival fell right after Christmas. A combination of religions on a small and populous island like Sri Lanka often did not bode well for the island, but in this particular instance they provided a delightful stretch of free days that set city people scrambling for the sea. There was no better way to travel there than on the legendary Queen of the Sea train, a chariot of moving metal whisking them to a magic land of white sand and blue seas. Cheers rang out as the packed carriages lurched into motion.
Despite the crowds, the train might even have left on time if there had not been the trouble with the mail. Ganesh, the engine driver, did not blame the mail carrier for this speck on his record ― it was not Wanigaratna’s fault that so many idiots waited until the very last moment to take their presents to the post office. The man had 30 mailbags to carry down to Galle, each filled with pointy parcels stating the senders’ opinion as to how they should be handled. This end UP! Handle with Care! Perishable! It had taken the poor fellow ages to heave them all on board.
Ganesh himself had a large plastic shopping bag of presents, all highly Perishable, stashed behind the driver’s seat. The bag was the only reason he was working that day. His wife had stayed up all night busy as a mouse, filling their tiny flat with the scent of boiled sugar and crushed spices. Ganesh tried to sleep through it, but sometime after midnight he gave up. Why, he asked, going into the kitchen, the last minute rush? Why always food? Why not send them ― her uncle’s family would be meeting the train at Peraliya to collect the package ― something else? His wife had looked up from her pot of boiling oil and studied his spindly frame. What? She asked.
He had to say this: the woman could pack a book of meaning into a single word. There was the issue of his government salary (not so good) and family responsibilities (Arjun, her mother’s youngest brother, was struggling to set up a pickle stand in Peraliya). But the heart of her question was this: what could satisfy the soul better than freshly fried jaggery and moong kavun? He had no other choice but to accept his fate and slink back to bed. Boxing Day was supposed to be his day off.
Wanigaratna helped a woman with a baby step around the bags piled on the floor and returned to his improvised seat. The train was so crowded he was obliged to sit on the mail bags piled along the creaking corridor. Lowering his generous bottom onto the lumpy canvass, he struggled to suppress the conviction that he looked like a hen brooding over her eggs. The important thing was to get the bags to Galle without incident. At that time of year, they were stuffed with valuables ― and plenty of thieves knew it. The things people mailed! It honestly boggled the mind. Robbers, however, with their limited imaginations, were interested only in money. The thought that someone could tear open someone’s carefully wrapped package in the hope of finding a few rupee notes pained him. Did the robbers even think about how the person who sent it would feel? Did they understand the time and effort it took some people to write a card or find a gift?
Most people did not give mail much thought. The canvass bags beneath his buttocks held a lot of junk, but Wanigaratna knew that mixed in with the form letters and electricity bills were the nuts and bolts of ordinary life. There were babies’ bonnets knit by old ladies, longed for news of births (and deaths), letters carrying the hearts of the people who wrote them… Mail was a mirror of a country’s soul. It might, in Sri Lanka’s particular case, be tattered and torn by bullets and bombs, but the country still had the life affirming impulse to buy stamps. And until the train pulled into Galle, he was the soul’s shepherd. Moving his legs to let another person pass, he looked up just in time to catch a young man quickly shift his gaze out the window. Wanigaratna gave the boy a hard, uncompromising stare.
She did not know he was coming. He had told her he would be going to his family’s village for the full moon festival. But instead Prem was on the train to Galle, on his way to Priya, on his way to propose.
He had tried writing a letter to ask her to marry him. All that previous night he had striven, page after ripped up page, to build up to the question, to create such a stir in her heart that by the time he finally wrote, will you marry me? tears would glisten in her eyes and she would remember the moment for the rest of her life with the same sensation of wonder, only… he had failed. A week of cramming for his zoology exams had filled his head with images of chickens with swollen wattles and terms like oedema, lymphadenitis, nodule. They would not clear off to give way to words of love. Dawn found him dozing at his desk surrounded by the stained scraps of wasted trees. He raised his head just as the first rays of sun radiated off the rusting roof across the street, and he suddenly knew what he had to do. He stuffed a pair of clean socks into his rucksack, locked the door, and sprinted to the station, recklessly leaping onto the last car of the train as it pulled away from the platform.
It was a struggle to squeeze his way past the people squatting in the aisles but he eventually found some standing space next to a mound of mail bags. For the first few minutes, he concentrated on trying to keep his balance while holding his arms away from his body to allow the sweat on his back to dry before his shirt became irrevocably stained. It would not be good to show up at Priya’s house looking like something the cat dragged in. He debated whether he should walk straight to her house or stop somewhere first to freshen up – it might be best. Or was he just seeking a way to put off the decisive moment?
The mail bags stared up at him, their brooding bulk a mute reprimand. If other people managed to produce letters, why couldn’t he? Perhaps he was not worthy. Perhaps Priya would take one look at him, the failed letter writer, and simply say no. She might not even let him through the door! The thought made him weak in the knees. He cast about for a place to sit and was on the verge of asking the mailman permission to rest on top of a bag when the fellow shot him a nasty look. The smell of dried fish permeated the stuffy, narrow corridor, the odor intensifying every time the mailman moved his massive behind. Prem was overwhelmed by the sense of having made a terrible mistake.
Although he was eager to get rid of his wife’s package – the tantalizing aroma of her jaggery was becoming too much to resist ― Ganesh slowed the train on the twisting stretch below Ambalanguda. There were over a thousand ticketed passengers on the train, plus the extra few hundred thieves who had hopped on without going through the bother of purchasing tickets. It was impossible to maintain a normal speed when the carriages were weighted down with this holiday horde.
The movement of something large and ungainly on the hill behind the track suddenly caught his attention. He scanned the forest and was startled to see elephants charging up the slope of a banana plantation. They must have escaped from the game reserve. Bloody game keepers probably were all on holiday too.
The crowded, rusty red carriages were not at all what Christina had expected. The old black and white photographs of the train in her guidebook showed nattily dressed Europeans sedately drinking tea in an airy restaurant car. Back then, trains were equipped with restaurant cars. Back then, she bet, the young man who had just rudely pushed his way down the aisle would never have dared to leer down her T-shirt. Back then, the train’s one and only toilet would not have had dirty foot prints all over the seat… because there would have been separate compartments for natives and Europeans, which was wrong, of course, totally wrong.
She was sitting next to an elderly woman whose swirling, sari clad body had slowly spilled so far over onto Christina’s side that she was about to fall off the bench. Across from her, a French aid worker sprawled over two seats, effortlessly fending off any attempt to encroach on his space. Christina had noticed him while waiting to board the train and without consciously making a decision gravitated towards his side. It was a birds-of-a-feather, Westerner-with-Westerner impulse, one too strong to resist. At the time, he had been talking loudly on his cell phone about the vaccines he was carrying to Galle in a picnic cooler, mocking the caller’s apparent concerns about failing to respect the cold chain. He was the kind of French person who could take a beaky nose, messy black hair, and a non-descript body, put on a worn blue shirt with the sleeves rolled above the elbows, and make her feel intensely self-conscious. Not that he actually had been paying her much attention… she was not the kind of woman he would notice.
She was right. He hadn’t ― and he wouldn’t. The sea saw to that.
A murmur of puzzled voices woke Frédéric from his nap. Other passengers were craning their heads out the open windows, chattering and pointing at the coast. The train had reached the stretch of track above Perilya that followed the curve of a wide cove, coming with yards of the white sandy beach. The track passed so close to the sea that you usually could hear the sound of the surf through the open windows.
Frederic took one look at the cove and sat up with a start. It was completely drained of water, the exposed stretch of seafloor as troublingly naked as a bald woman’s head. The tide had retreated so fast that it left a few startled fish stranded on the wet sand.
Most of the passengers were too busy staring at the cove to look out to sea, but when one did, she screamed. Frédéric shoved the woman away from the window and wildly scanned the horizon. Beyond the flat, empty stretch of sea floor, a few hundred yards out from the shore, a wave was rising. Not an ordinary wave, but a wall of water, one that grew in height with the same mind boggling speed with which it hurtled towards the island.
When ordinary things are turned lethally upside down, many people cannot shake the feeling that they are watching a movie. Most passengers had assumed the open mouthed, splayed back attitude of spectators in a dark cinema. Not so Frederic ― five years in Afghanistan had fined tuned his innate survival instincts. He ran towards the engine, leaping over the tangle of legs and bodies blocking the aisles, and screamed at the driver to accelerate onto higher ground.
Offshore, the tsunami had been hardly noticeable, running barely a foot above the sea’s surface level. There was no sign of the explosive energy that had been unleashed hours earlier when the Sumatran plate on the ocean floor had buckled under the Himalayan heft of its Indian counterpart. To escape one hundred years of accumulated stress, the Sumatran plate had heaved itself upright, shaking off millions of tons of water in a series of massive convulsions. Two hours later, the waves they created were coursing towards Sri Lanka at 800 km an hour.
As it approached the island, the tsunami pulled itself up to unimagined heights, relishing the view. The first wave hit the beach at a run and kept going, snubbing ordinary rules, the bounds of propriety for once ignored. The water rushed up and over the trees, swallowed houses whole, tore over the train track, and splashed at the hillside, missing the elephants racing up the slope by a hair. The sea retreated, laughing, and tried again, fueled with the rush of energy still coursing through its waters, drunk on its own unimagined power. She ran at the land, barely winded by the impact on the sand, and rolled up and up, picking up all sorts of things as it went. A chair, a goat, a tractor, a train, it swept them all effortlessly out of its path, thrilled by its own swooshing force, oblivious to the screams.
It threw itself at Sri Lanka four more times but then, as unexpectedly as it had started, the crazed desire to swallow the land was spent. As it withdrew, the sea suddenly felt the flaming shame of a child who had gone too far. It tried to straighten up, but she had been so in the thrall of her own force that she had not even noticed where things had been in the first place. The child, it left in a tree, the boat, it shoved beneath a broken bridge, but the train was so weighted down with water logged bags and bodies that it was impossible to set upright. She left the crumpled carriages where they lay and retreated, mortified by the mess.
Grace Delobel was born and raised in New York City. She attended Wesleyan and Columbia University, worked on public health programs in Pakistan for Afghan refugees, and then, after a detour in the Philippines, landed in France where she lives with her family and works as a translator. She also is writing a book about headhunters in the mountains of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century