When the Earth Moved: Two Perspectives —by Jinny Batterson
(Ever since the May 12, 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province that shook many people’s worlds, I’ve been trying to write about it. An earlier version of this prose poem originally appeared in the 2014 edition of the Silly Tree poetry anthology, “The Way the Light Slants.” )
He: I was hiking in the Sichuan hills with two friends, one American, one Chinese,
When the earth began to shake. For some interval of time, I thought I would die.
We took shelter beneath a rock overhang until the worst shaking subsided.
She: I was babysitting our grandson in America when the phone rang–
A newspaper reporter from our former hometown asked,
“Do you have a close relative in the earthquake zone?”
“What earthquake?” I responded. Then the earth began to quiver for me, too.
I tried to stay calm for the sake of our grandson.
He: We decided to seek more permanent shelter
In the little village we’d passed through coming up the hill.
Dodging boulders, we arrived safely, to find some houses smashed,
But everyone alive, amazingly hospitable to a city stranger and two foreigners.
She: While the toddler napped, I trolled the Internet.
The earthquake’s epicenter had been near the giant panda preserve at Wolong.
Online posts told of bad damage at this site of my husband’s previous email.
However, no foreign casualties were reported. Most fatalities occurred in cities
As buildings collapsed. I took heart: husband and friends were in the rural hills.
He: Officials from a larger town downhill, where our Chinese friend’s car
Was parked, came and insisted we go with them.
We resisted. They persisted. We dodged more boulders, rejoined the car.
Townspeople offered food and a tent. We joined them in a simple meal,
Cheered with them when their exhausted children walked safely,
But grimly, single file, back to town from their damaged school.
Aftershocks punctuated the night. We catnapped in the car. By morning,
Soldiers had hiked in over a mountain pass–most roads were blocked.
They cleared rubble.
She: Once the babysitting day was over, our son returned from work.
Soon questions came from all sides–When had I last heard from him?
Did I know where he was, exactly? My inbox overflowed; the phone kept ringing.
I offered more reassurance than I felt: Area communication lines were down;
He’d been in the countryside, most likely out in the open.
I was pretty sure he was safe. I’d relay further news as soon as I heard.
Please try not to worry. I slept.
He: Officialdom everywhere can be a nuisance, even a danger.
We were told: “Foreign tourists should not be in the earthquake zone.
No earthquake images allowed.” Cameras were confiscated, pictures deleted.
Police cars, at breakneck speed, returned us to the provincial capital
Over roads that would not be fully repaired for years, if ever.
She: The second day was harder. No babysitting chores. No direct word,
Only more and more Internet reports of damage and deaths,
Even in the countryside. I did some part-time contract work, poorly.
Early to bed, but not to sleep, much. About 4 a.m.
I again checked the Internet. Short new message:
“Madam, excuse please poor English. Husband and friends safe.”
Quick phone call to the American friend’s wife,
Emails to other family and friends, then, at last, sleep.
He: We began to absorb the massive extent of the quake.
Our Chinese friend’s city was especially hard hit–her parents’
House badly damaged; friends, classmates and colleagues killed.
At last I could contact my wife–let her know I was all right.
She: That fall, we began a year of English teaching at a Sichuan university
Far enough from the epicenter to have escaped major damage,
But close enough so some students had lost family or friends.
We grieved with them, easing the pain by writing and telling it out.
One weekend in May, 2009, we made an unofficial visit to the quake zone.
Temporary housing sprawled amid massive reclamation efforts.
I got to meet and thank some families who’d sheltered my husband and friends.
I finally got to meet and thank the English-challenged
Cousin of our Chinese friend, whose simple email had surpassed language.