IN China they recently completed a dam that will flood a hundred villages. I read about it this morning in the paper while Mom was sleeping. Everyone was forced to relocate, but their houses remained behind.
Every day I read the paper, looking for such disasters—new piles of bodies found in Rwanda, an earthquake in Chiapas, a derailed train outside Copenhagen. The worst news always makes me feel a little better, always lessens this feeling that I’m the only one with loss.
Once, while I was reading about an apartment that had collapsed in New Delhi, I heard Mom start coughing, a dry and sore morning cough. I waited to see if it would stop on its own, without having to feed her a teaspoon of cola, or lift her up to massage the tiny cords of muscle that still straddle her spine. Because of a structural flaw in the steel, one of the I-beams that spanned the basement of the building crumpled around five o’clock in the morning, when the tenants were still asleep. They were crushed beneath their ceilings and the weight of their neighbors’ belongings. The few survivors of the collapse had laid patiently beneath the rubble for seventy-two hours before being exhumed. I almost finished that article when I heard Mom’s cough getting dryer. I went in and made adjustments to her bed, which seemed to help. But this time, the coughing wouldn’t stop, and after several hours, I eventually had to feed her drops of morphine until she fell asleep.
This is the first morning in weeks I’ve gotten through three quarters of the paper without Mom coughing, without having to hold the metal pan to catch the orangish fluid that oozes out from between her lips.
For five years, this article says, the Chinese had been building the dam, so far down stream that no one could hear the trucks and trucks of concrete moving in, like a string of ants in search of water, to dump their wet cargo against the wooden frame of the dam. For five years, the river was diverted around the dam, through a giant pipe.
When the officials knocked on the town people’s doors, everything was already in place. The trees had been shaved like hairs from the hillsides upstream, the timber already sold. There was nothing anyone could do.
I set the paper down to check on Mom. She was still asleep, her face for once without its grimace of pain. It seemed almost impossible to imagine. I placed a finger by her nostrils, to make sure there was still breath, then I returned to the kitchen and I read some more.
When the last of the people were evacuated, the Chinese closed off the pipes and let the water flood the streets. Most of the furniture and the cupboards, I read, had been left behind. What wasn’t anchored down, floated away. What was secure or heavy, simply disappeared beneath the surface.
In some ways, I suppose, this story was not as horrible as others. No one, as far as I read, was killed. It was simply a report about progress, which can seem tragic or hopeful, depending on where you stand. But I couldn’t help but feel for these people, more than for the victims of other disasters. Maybe because it seemed so easy to imagine, the lake slowly spreading like a hemorrhage, in that beautiful, effortless way water does.
I heard Mom shift in her bed. She took a deep breath, followed by a long valley of silence her breathing sometimes falls into. I knew these were her best remaining hours, when she appeared the most serene.
As I waited for the next breath, I pictured myself as one of the villagers, on top of a mountain there in China, overlooking that completed, stillborn lake. I imagined it would seem almost natural—how could all that water not? The fishing boats floating across the surface, the trees growing right up to the shore. It would seem almost peaceful—the lapping of the tiny waves against the mountain, the reflection of the giant sky on the water—except for everything I knew that existed underneath.
Previously published in Dispatch Literary Journal