Chapter 1 – Awakening
El Gran Terremoto of 1960 was the single most powerful earthquake ever recorded. It measured a magnitude of 9.5, 100 times stronger than the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that destroyed San Francisco just 54 years before. The epicenter was near the town of Lumaco, Chile, and the resulting tsunami affected not only the coast of Chile, but traversed the Pacific Ocean, devastating Hilo, Hawaii with 35-foot-high waves, causing damage as far away as California, Japan, and the Philippines.
Dressed in native garb and covered in muck, like the sea itself had swallowed her alive and vomited her up again, the woman struggled to lift each foot from the sucking mire that once had been a road. Somehow she was succeeding, trudging along with dogged determination toward the center of the town. Her long black hair was matted to her head with clumps of drying mud, and her eyes were those of a frightened wild animal.
The mud was over a foot deep on the street where the woman plodded, and much deeper in some places. In others, the remains of the clash between the sea and the land were still evident. Fishing vessels leaning at odd angles were docked on what had been dry land several days ago and now was wet sand and sludge, deposited by the ocean. Many houses in this section of the village remained standing, but others tilted to one side or the other, the lumber escaping its joints and fasteners, threatening collapse. In some places nothing remained but mounds of broken concrete and debris. Large pools of water still stood in the low lying sections, from where the ocean had rushed in three days ago. The sickly sweet smell of death filled the air.
Once a bustling port filled with families and fishermen, this town, so close to the epicenter of the earthquake, was now populated with teams of rescue workers dispatched to search for survivors buried beneath the heaps of rubble. Very quickly, the frenzied hope of the rescuers had given way to the somber gloom of recovery as it became clear that those who had remained trapped in the collapse of the buildings had succumbed to a watery grave.
A rescue worker spotted the woman and ran toward her, shouting for help. Several people poked their heads out of buildings, and several others rushed toward her. The woman, beyond exhaustion, collapsed in an unconscious heap in the arms of the first person to reach her.
She was floating, drifting up from the depths of a deep, dark pool. All was quiet, warm, comforting, like being rocked in a mother’s arms. Then from miles above, the faint, far-off sound of beeping electrical pulses slowly penetrated her senses. Like fireflies on a warm night after summer rains, sparks swam in the darkness behind her eyelids and a sound like the ocean receding from the shore finally gave way to a loud electrical “blip blip” noise. As she focused her consciousness on it, it became a steadying, stable sound that gave her an anchor to grasp onto. When she finally opened her eyes she was completely disoriented by her surroundings and closed them again.
She lay there, confused and unsettled, hardly daring to move, until a nurse appeared, summoned by the rapid beeping coming from the machines beside her. The nurse, having the graying hair and thickened body of a woman planted firmly in middle age, bustled into the room with an air of efficiency, speaking in a language that felt foreign to the woman. After a few sentences, she began to understand the nurse’s patter.
“…What is your name, Señorita?” the nurse asked. She spoke slowly while moving around the bed, checking her vitals and her connections to the beeping machine. “My name is Maria. Can you tell me your name? Who are you? Where you are from? You came in without any identification. Do you have any family who can come for you?”
Bustling around the woman as she spoke, the nurse tucked in her sheets and adjusted her pillows. When the woman, quite disoriented and now a bit distressed, could not answer any of her questions, the nurse gave up and disappeared. For the next few hours there followed an almost constant parade of nurses and doctors in and out of her room, examining her, asking more questions that she couldn’t answer.
“Where am I?” the woman asked the nurse who had called herself Maria, during one of her routine visits to check her vitals. “What happened? How did I get here?”
The nurse smiled kindly at her and pulled the curtain surrounding her cot fully closed, then sat down on a little wooden chair beside the bed. One of the three other patients sharing the room stirred a little and coughed loudly.
“You were brought in from Valdivia, where you were found walking along one of the streets at the very edge of the city. You could barely put one foot in front of the other and you were covered in mud and filth from head to toe. No one saw where you came from. Some of the rescue workers said you just appeared in the street, from thin air. But that’s just absurd!” The nurse laughed at the thought of the superstitious locals and shook her head. She kept her voice low, to avoid the other patients overhearing. “You were so exhausted that you passed out and didn’t wake up until this morning. Poor thing!”
“Rescue workers? What do you mean?”
“What? You don’t know, do you? Oh, Señorita! The earth moved! It shook and shook and shook, I thought it would never stop! My husband thought the Russians were bombing us! We all rushed out of our houses, those that could. Even here, some houses fell and others are so badly damaged that no one will live in them again. I thank Our Lady of Mount Carmel that we are not near the sea here! Because down by the sea, they got it worse, much worse than we did. The maremoto came – a tsunami! It was a good thing that people ran out of their houses during el terremoto! Most of them saw the ocean coming and they ran for high ground.”
The woman’s face was twisted in dismay and tears slid down her cheeks. “How—how many people died?”
“I don’t know how many people were lost, Senorita, nobody knows yet. Perhaps nobody ever will.”
“Did you lose anyone? Your home?”
Maria shook her head. “Thanks be to Our Lady. My sister had a house in Puerto Montt. It didn’t fall down in the earthquake, but it washed away in the tsunami. Thank Our Lady, my sister and her family were outside and they ran quickly up the hill, just ahead of the ocean. They are safe now, but they are staying with me and my husband. We don’t mind at all, though! Our house is big and it has been so empty since our son and our daughter grew up and moved out.”
The woman patted the nurse’s hand. “I’m so glad your family is all safe and well.”
Maria clasped the woman’s hand. “You’re an angel! Here you are, in the hospital, not knowing a thing about yourself, and yet you’re comforting me!” She laughed and shook her head, but then grew serious once more. “Señorita, I want to help you find your own family and go home. There are lists of people. Lists of people who are missing. I’ve been reading them, trying to find out if someone is looking for you. If you could remember something—anything—it would help. Maybe instead of trying to remember your name, you could try to remember where you live—your house?”
The woman sat back against the pillows arranged behind her back and closed her eyes. The patient in the next cot coughed again, and she could hear the bustle of the hospital going on outside her room. Someone wheeled a gurney down the hall. The wheels needed oil. An ambulance’s siren blare grew louder as it drew near. She tried to drown out the noises and remember a town, a village, a house. But nothing came.
“I can’t. I don’t remember,” she sighed, opening her eyes.
Maria stood. “It’s okay, Señorita. I’ll keep looking at the lists.” She straightened her nurse’s hat and smoothed her white skirt. “You try to get some rest and we will see how you feel tomorrow.” She smiled and waved good night as she left, drawing the curtain closed again behind her.
The next day, exhausted from a battery of tests, the woman lay on her hospital bed drifting in and out of a light sleep, when she heard hushed voices in the hallway outside her door.
“She’s just been lying there all afternoon, pobrecita—poor thing—staring at the ceiling. All these tests and she can’t seem to remember anything,” the nurse’s voice drifted into the room, over the other hospital sounds.
The woman snapped back to full alertness. Keeping her eyes closed, she lay still in her bed, straining to hear.
“Most likely she doesn’t remember anything,” came a male voice. She recognized it as belonging to one of the elderly doctors who had been in to visit her over the past day. “Based on my visits with her and the tests I’ve given her, I’m going to make a diagnosis of dissociative amnesia. She’s been through the earthquake and, by the reports of the rescue team, she was probably caught in the tsunami as well. If that’s the case, she’s just lucky to be alive, but that is enough trauma to trigger this sort of reaction. It’s a defense mechanism by the brain to avoid remembering painful and traumatic experiences. Likely it is just transitive and she will recover her memories in time. Have you had any luck matching her with missing persons’ descriptions yet?”
“Nothing yet. There are plenty of reports of women around her age, twenty-five to thirty years old, long, dark hair. But she’s so tall. And those eyes! I’ve never seen anyone quite like her,” the nurse replied.
“Well, keep trying, Maria. It’s only been two days, after all. There must be someone missing her, although…maybe they didn’t survive to report her loss,” the doctor said, hints of sorrow and fatigue creeping into his voice. “I’ve seen so much loss these past few days…more than in my entire career.”
“I know. I will do what I can. Someone has to come forward soon… I just can’t bear to think of her going into a shelter!”
“Maria, the hospital is overcrowded and there is nothing physically wrong with her. We can’t keep her here forever.”
Hot tears welled up in the woman’s eyes and she rolled onto her right side, away from the door. The doctor and nurse’s voices retreated down the hall, leaving her alone to ponder the weight of the doctor’s words. Who am I? Who have I lost? What’s happened to my memory? And then a final thought—Where will I go? She bunched up her pillow, hugging it hard to her chest, and cried herself to sleep.