19. The Bike

February 16, 2021 - Roger W. Lowther

On March 11, 2011, the world changed. Like the old photographs I occasionally found scattered amongst the debris, all the color was gone. Gray mud from the ocean floor coated everything, and gray dust constantly blew through the air turning our white masks black. Even the sun remained hidden behind the dull clouds, refusing to penetrate our colorless purgatory.

The world became flat. The wave robbed the land of anything vertical—buildings, electric poles, trees—leaving nothing but the distant mountains. The empty concrete foundations and shapeless piles of debris resembled some alien planet.

The world became hard and inhuman. There was no room for anything but the most basic of human needs: food, water, clothes, shelter. Emotions were absent. Natural human expressions of smiling, talking, and laughing were gone. People were waiting, always waiting: for food, water, supplies, or a word from a missing loved one.

Mystical barriers between earth and sea fractured into one muddy chaotic mess. Fish sat orphaned on land. Large ships rolled onto downtown roads. A boy’s soccer ball floated across the Pacific. A picture frame, a golf club, a teacup, and a child’s doll lay jumbled together in the wet mud.

On one of my trips to the city of Ishinomaki, I took some time separated from the group to walk around try to make sense of it all. I came upon a dirty twisted bicycle propped against a pile of trash. A sudden urge came over me to fix that bicycle and make it useful again.

I picked up a metal pole and poked it between the spokes of the front tire, bending it into something resembling a circle. With my foot against the frame, I pulled with all my might to straighten out the twisted handlebars. The seat was too low and covered in mud, but I sat on it anyway. I tried the pedals, and the bicycle lurched forward.

This bike and I are going for a ride, I decided, just the two of us. We rattled through the devastation to see how far we could go. We must have looked ridiculous. I’m glad no one was around to watch.

But as I rode on, I began to feel very much alone. Not one house remained standing. Children once played in these streets. Families once lived in these neighborhoods. It all seemed so final, these shapeless mountains of debris. And yet, didn’t this abandoned bicycle prove that new life in the rubble was possible, that the brokenness didn’t have to be the end?

The bicycle and I rode all the way to the eastern edge of town, where the potholed road led straight into the ocean, a sign of just how far the land sank during the earthquake. It was no small miracle we made it that far, and for some strange reason a small smile crossed my face.


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