It’s the day after Christmas, 2004. I’m eight years old. It’s about 8:30 am, and the sea is acting funny. It drags itself back kilometer after kilometer. We watch it go, slowly. When it stops, it piles up on itself, slab of water upon slab of water, until it’s swelled into a mountain with a tuft of creamy froth across its top.
“What’s happening?” I ask my father.
He shakes his head. “I don’t know.” He frowns. “It’s never happened before.”
I compare the height of the wave—that’s what Father thinks it is—to the palm trees nearby. It’s as tall as two of them put together.
There’s a slight tic at the corner of Father’s left eyelid. His mouth is open, shaped like the letter O. I know the signs. Father is worried. But he’s always been a worrier. So my sister and I ignore him. We stare at what the sea has left behind—at the scattered seashells that glint like the gems from Ratnapura, at the thrashing bodies of fish and the baby crabs that claw the air.
“It’s a miracle,” Mother says.
She’s not worried about the sea either. My sister starts collecting the shells. Mother goes home and comes back with an empty box of Elephant House ice cream. She walks behind sister with the box in her hands. Sister drops what she holds in it.
“The tourists will love these,” Mother says.
When the box is full, she hurries back to our house, which is built higher up on the shore. I know she’ll be back after she empties it in a corner.
“If this happened on the twenty-fourth, we could’ve sold everything to Perera Sir,” my sister tells me.
Perera Sir is a Christian. My father works for him as his driver. Every year, on Christmas Day, all of us go to Perera Sir’s house. His wife gives us a piece of Christmas cake, some biscuits and an iced Necto to drink. While we sit at the back of the house, in the servants’ quarters, and eat what we are given, we hear his son play with his Christmas presents. Yesterday, his son was in the garden. Santa Claus had brought him a toy helicopter that actually flew and he was using a small gadget to control where it went. I couldn’t resist. I went out to the garden to watch. When Perera Sir’s son saw me, he made the helicopter swoop around like a bird. It made me sad. I wanted a helicopter like that. But Father couldn’t afford it.
As my sister waits for Mother to return, I say, “After we sell the shells, will you buy me a helicopter?”
She smiles at me and strokes my hair. “Of course. I’ll go to Colombo and get it for you myself.”
I’m so happy to hear her say that. Imagine me with a toy helicopter. I’ll fly it everywhere—over the sand, I’ll make it dip over the waves, land it on our roof.
“I could use some help,” my sister tells me.
I squat down beside her.
“I want the ones that are not broken,” sister says. She is twirling a shell between her fingers the way a gem merchant examines a blue sapphire.
I nod. It’s then that it happens. There’s a roar. I look up. The sea is surging at us. As it does, it swallows up the beach very quickly. The coffee froth that had been spread across its peak is now a bellowing column of white. I know the water will hit me in seconds. Without thinking of my father, sister, or mother, I turn and run. Next to me, my sister is also running, her skirt lifted up to her knees. Father’s got his sarong tied up to his waist, but as he runs he yells at us to move faster.
Above us, nothing’s changed. The sky is still pale blue and the sun burns our skin. Around us there are loud screams; a melee of arms and legs. The whole village had been out here, but now everyone’s shoving, pushing, crashing into one another as they run from the sea.
Ahead, the main road is silent. We run toward it for no reason at all. The road is at the same level as the beach. The water will sweep over it like it’s nothing but a patch of sand. Everybody knows that, but still, since it’s there, we make for it.
I’m panting. I can’t run any faster. The water is getting closer. It’s louder. I’ve got only a few more seconds.
Father grabs me. He lifts me up and runs. I feel the thump, thump of his heart as he holds me against his chest. Behind us the sea is thunderstorm loud. It’s as if it’s lifting itself up to the sky then dashing itself back down on to the earth.
“Amatasiri!” father swears. White foam swirls around his feet. He pushes himself. The water is rising around his knees. He splashes through it, trying to keep the momentum going. “Aiyo,” he says, and that’s the last thing I hear him speak.
When the torrent of water hits us, Father takes the brunt of the impact. It feels like a giant has picked him up and flung him against a wall. His body shields me from the force of the wave. Father holds me with one arm and swims with the other. His lips are pressed tightly together, holding the air in. I know he wants to breathe. His chest is bursting. I feel the same way, but the current is strong. It holds us down. Father can’t push up to the surface to get air. The water feels alive. It is pulsating, tearing forward, and knocking over everything in its path. Suddenly, in front of me, red tiles appear. There are lots of them, all bunched together. They rip past us, like bullets. After the tiles there is timber, corrugated metal, bits of a bed, twisted window frames. Boom! Boom! More tiles are ripped from more roofs. They fly past us. Father keeps swimming. Then the tree appears. It comes out of nowhere, its branches careening like an out-of-control car. One of its boughs, a good two feet thick, slaps Father across the head. He gasps. His grip slackens. I slip out of his arms. As the current pulls me away from him, his eyes bulge. His mouth is open. Father’s body turns into a crooked shadow before it disappears.
The sand is gummy. There’s a stench in the air, of red meat that’s been left out in the sun for too long. I wonder if I’m dead. Then my eyes flutter open on their own. And I see faces staring.
“Where’s my father? I ask them.
They say nothing.
“My mother? My sister?”
A few of them look away.
I look around me. There’s dirt everywhere; garbage, broken houses, damaged cars, and dead bodies flung all over. A short distance away, a man is cradling a baby. She has tiny fingers and toes. But she is bloated and her father cries as he kisses her face.
“The sea doesn’t care when it takes a life. It doesn’t let you die with your dignity,” I hear a man say.
Someone pulls at my arm. He wants me up on my feet. I want to lie where I am, but the man is insistent.
He keeps saying, “You have to get to higher ground, boy. It’s safer there. The wave might come again.”
Mentioning the wave is enough to get me moving. My legs feel wobbly when I stand up. The man slips an arm around my shoulders, steadies me. We walk toward the road.
On the way, there are people, lots of them. Some are talking. Others just stare into the distance. There’s a group of men with mammoties digging a pit. Flies sit on the handkerchiefs tied over their mouths. They ignore the buzzing and continue with their work. Two other men appear carrying a body on a gunny bag. It is puffed, and turning a blackish gray. The men tip it over into the pit. It falls in. It’s stiff, outstretched arms going in first. As soon as they finish, the two men are off again. Then another two arrive with another gunny and another corpse.
The man who is taking me to higher ground tells me to hurry. I can’t. My legs aren’t working. The mud sucks my feet in. I stumble. The man grumbles.
On our left, ten children are laid out in a row. They are stiff, like plastic dolls. A few of them are my age, others are younger. Next to them, a man is digging a grave. He uses his hands. When he has dug deep enough, he starts lifting up the children and flinging them in. Thump! Thump!
“The kids are from the orphanage,” the man who is helping me says, “and they weren’t as lucky as you.”
When he tells me this, I remember my father with his mouth open and the bubbles streaming out of it. I start to cry.
The man becomes uncomfortable. “There, there,” he says, “stop it.”
When I don’t, he grips my shoulder tighter.
“Stop it.” He looks around him to see if anyone is watching us. He wants me to walk faster.
Somewhere up on the road, he leaves me. He says that this is as high as it will get, I’ll be safe now. He says he has to rescue other people who are hurt and on the beach.
A short woman walks past me; she drags her foot behind her. She looks familiar.
The woman doesn’t stop.
She keeps going. I follow her.
The woman walks faster. The mud is a thick, brown sludge that covers everything. The scenery has changed. I don’t recognize half the places I pass. Most of the houses are shells; palm trees lie with their trunks broken in halves. The rail track is uprooted. A man on a moped rides past only to stop a few feet from me to move the debris, fallen branches, and corrugated metal that saddles the road and blocks his way.
The woman I’m following makes a right and heads into town. Is she Mother? I’m pretty sure she is. I call out again. She doesn’t hear me. I struggle to keep up.
She stops when she gets to the General Hospital, then turns left, and heads straight for the morgue. I know that’s what it is because it’s got a board outside. And it’s a pretty big one at that.
At the entrance, a man is telling everyone to form a queue. He shouts at us. But nobody is listening; instead they push, yell, and try to get inside.
“The morgue is full,” the man keeps shouting. “Get in line. Take your turn to go in.”
The woman does her bit of shoving until she gets to where the man is standing.
Trying to get to her side, I push my way through. “Mother.” She doesn’t look back. From where I’m standing, a section inside the morgue is visible. I see piles of flesh, outstretched arms, legs, and bloated faces.
The woman tells the man at the door something. He lets her in.
Being little has its advantages. I creep between arms, legs, and reach the man at the entrance. As he’s jostled by the crowd trying to get in, he doesn’t notice me. I slide past.
Inside, the morgue is small, not built to handle an emergency like this. There are eight to nine bodies to a stretcher, and they are lumped one over the other, the way garbage is dumped in a bin. There are other people in the room besides the woman. They are all searching for relatives, friends, or loved ones. The woman is at the further end staring at a corpse with froth-smeared lips and skin that’s hardened into dried wood.
I go to her side and tug her arm. “Mother.”
The woman turns. She’s got a hooked nose and thin lips. I look away. That’s not Mother. Mother has a normal nose. And her lips aren’t like that.
I don’t know how long I walked, but when the fog in my mind clears, I am right outside Perera Sir’s big metal gate. Perera Sir’s house is built on a hill so the wave hasn’t touched it. I look in through the metal rods and see Perera Sir’s son in the garden. “One big scoop of ice cream” is how Father used to describe him, “they feed him too much.” The boy is holding on to his toy helicopter as he stares at me. I know he recognizes me but when I call out to him, he turns and runs into the house.
I ring the gate bell. A few minutes later, the cleaning woman comes out. She sees me and hurries over. “How are you? What happened to your parents and your sister? Are they safe?” She opens the gate.
“The wave got Father,” I mumble. “I don’t know what happened to Mother and Sister.”
The woman’s eyes widen. She covers her mouth with her hand. “Oh, God!”
Perera Sir is sitting behind a desk reading a newspaper. His office is twice the size of our house. Everywhere I look there are books, framed pictures on the walls, and trophies.
The cleaning woman taps on the half-open door. Perera Sir looks up.
“It’s the driver’s son, Sir. His father got caught in the wave,” the cleaning woman says.
Perera Sir is shocked. “What! That’s terrible news.” He wants to know if Mother and Sister are safe?
I shift uneasily.
The cleaning woman answers for me. “They are missing, Sir. The boy doesn’t know where they are.”
Perera Sir then asks the cleaning woman to call the Madam. She runs out and whispers in the hall. I hear the squish, squish of wet Bata slippers against the ceramic tiled floor as the Madam makes her way to the room and sits down in a chair next to Perera Sir—she’s overweight like her son. “Where are your parents?” she asks me.
I shake my head. “I don’t know what happened to my mother and sister. Father got caught in the wave.”
Perera Sir rubs his chin. “This is terrible. How did you escape?”
I shrug. “I don’t know.”
Perera Sir looks at his wife. “It’s on every channel. They are saying what hit us was a tsunami.”
Tsunami? I don’t know what that is. From the look on her face, I know the cleaning woman is also clueless.
“On TV they said it’s a Japanese word for a big wave,” Perera Sir says.
“Oh,” his wife says. “I must look it up on the Internet.”
Do I care? Whatever the wave is called, in Japanese, Tamil, or Sinhalese, it killed my father.
Perera Sir’s eyes shift to my face. “What about your relations, do you have any?”
“My Uncle Sarath is in Dubai.”
“That’s not going to help. Anyone in Sri Lanka?”
“Latha Aunty is in Colombo.”
“Okay. What’s her phone number?”
I shrug. “I don’t know her number. I’ve never called her. Mother is the one who phones her.”
“Where does your aunt live in Colombo?”
I draw designs on the ceramic tiled floor with my big toe. “I don’t know. I don’t know her address.”
“If we can help you in anyway, we will,” Perera Sir says.
I nod my head.
“Are you hungry?” his wife asks.
“You must eat something,” the cleaning woman butts in.
“Take him behind and give him some food,” Perera Sir instructs her.
The cleaning woman holds my hand and leads me out. She speaks gently, as if I’m a baby.
There’s a circular table chipped at the edges that fills the servants’ room. A blocky TV with cobwebs decorating its antennae sits on a crate at the back, against one wall. A newspaper is spread out on the table. There is half a loaf of bread on it. Next to the bread is a dish of pol sambol—it’s almost all gone. The cleaning woman tells me to sit down and slides the bread and pol sambol toward me. I shake my head.
“Eat,” she says, “you must be starving.”
“I can’t eat.” I sound grumpy. “How can I?”
“Try to eat something,” she raises her voice. “You can’t walk around with nothing in your stomach.”
I nibble at a slice of bread. The cleaning woman goes out of the room. My head is heavy. It’s got this funny whirling feeling inside. Maybe if I lay it on the table, I’ll feel better. I push the plate aside and rest my head against the wood. It feels cool, but inside my skull, things are still spinning. I shut my eyes. In a moment, I’m asleep. Then I dream of Father.
The tic beneath his left eyelid is worse. His mouth is shaped like an O, but when he sees me, he forces a smile. I smile back at him. He moves, but something is wrong. His body is transparent. The wall is visible through his stomach. Then there’s a loud crash. The door falls in—boom! It’s flat against the floor. And the water gushes in. It is coming in fast, filling up the room like a fish tank. In my dream, I crawl up the walls and hang upside down on the ceiling. Father looks up at me; his tic is jumping off his face.
“Run,” he says, “run!”
The water keeps rising. It’s black, muddy, and as thick as soup. When it reaches the tip of his nose, Father gasps. His stomach bloats slowly. Then he is submerged completely. And everything turns black.
Fingers grip my shoulder. I awake with a start. The cleaning woman is standing next to me. “Don’t worry, son,” she’s saying. “God is with you. He saved you from the sea. He’ll protect you always.”
Later she takes me into a big room. Perera Sir and his family are seated around a table covered with a crisp, white cloth. There’s a dish of yellow saffron rice, and five or six curries are spread out before them. His son is licking the chicken gravy off his fingers. As we come in, Mrs. Perera gives me a pitying look. “Did you eat?” she asks.
I nod. “Thank you, Nona.”
“If you need anything, come back and ask. Anytime. You know where we live,” Perera Sir says. Then he dismisses me with a shake of his head and turns his attention to his plate.
After that, the cleaning woman walks me out to the gate. As she opens the latch, she says, “Remember what Sir said. Come back anytime, if you need anything.”
I thank her.
The latch drops shut with a clang. For a moment I am still, wondering how I am going to survive. What am I going to do? Then my legs take over and I start to walk. I don’t know where I am going. I just keep moving.
The Galle Road runs parallel to the beach. Nothing’s changed here. Everywhere I look there are piles of rubble, the remains of the houses that once covered the place. I walk past a nine-meter-long boat. It’s overturned; its motor is twenty meters away, dented, as if someone’s hit it repeatedly with a heavy hammer. The boulders that were used to stop soil erosion have been lifted as if they are pebbles and scattered inland. I walk around the bigger ones that loom up ahead of me. On the sides of the road, the freshly dug graves have makeshift wooden crosses stuck in them. I wonder who’s buried in there. Could Mother or my sister be in one of them?
I cross the Galle road and walk across the beach. Suddenly things start to look familiar, and I realize I’m standing in the exact spot where our house had once been. There’s nothing to identify it—not a piece of brick or a sheet of cadjan, but I don’t need concrete walls to remind me where we ate, where Father, Mother, and my sister slept. It’s all in my head. And it’s as real as the sun’s rays that are burning me.
I sit on the sand, staring at the sea, at the piles and piles of water. Father is in there somewhere. Stuck inside. And Mother? And my sister? Maybe they are there as well. I get to my feet and walk toward the sea. The water licks at my toes. Then it surges around my ankles. I go in deeper. It’s up to my waist now, making it difficult to walk. I keep going. It reaches my shoulders. In the distance, a swell forms. Its edges are tipped with white froth.
As I move forward, I say, “I’m coming, Father. I am coming.”
Anton Gunasingam lives in Sri Lanka and is working on a fantasy novel. He writes freelance for The Sunday Island, a Sri Lankan newspaper.
“Coming Home” was originally published in “Do You Love Me?” (TLR Spring 2015)