March 20, 2019 by The Citron Review
by Christopher Rabley
Ahead of my children, who laughed and whipped their paddles to stream water at my back, I stood still on my paddle-board, staring at clammy azalea blossoming crisp in the early sun, and remembered.
Ten years ago I sat in a makeshift morgue in Taipei City, empty save for neat rows of gray metal chairs folded outward, and an old woman slumped in a wheelchair, weeping. Orange marigolds blanketed the far wall from floor to ceiling, blossoms fastened to the surface beamed in a reverential display.
Behind the marigold-wall, bodies lay in caskets.
I wanted to see Mum.
The morning of the crash, at my desk in Boston, Mum called from Singapore to see what I thought about her flight being rerouted through Taipei. She’d traveled to Singapore to be with my sister, who’d just given birth to her second child. Dad was in Florida overseeing construction of a house they were building for their retirement.
I told her everything would be fine.
After work that evening, I watched the news: rain fell in sheets, covering a plane slumped on the runway. Fire roared enormous, churning dense smoke visible even though it was nighttime. Out the end of hoses, held by men in oversized boots, a special foam blew aimless. The flight crew, keen to take off before the typhoon peaked, using maps and naked eyesight, sped the 747 down a runway under construction.
Mum was inside the plane—I had been looking right at her. She was on a stairway between the upper and lowers decks, the fuselage the single barrier to seeing her, in whatever state, from our televisions sets.
My brother and I took the first flight to Taipei the next morning.
Three days later, in the make-shift morgue, Mohammed, assigned to us by the airline, and my brother, Paul, sat behind me. Mohammed told us nuns bathed Mum in holy water, dressed her in a silk gown.
I wanted to tell Mum Paul and I would take her to Wales, her home, and there she could rest. Motionless, I watched the marigold-wall beat an intoxicating wave of orange.
As a botanist, the subjects of Mum’s paintings were inevitably
A plant and its flower
–dashes, streaks showed off petals and stigmas,
Anthers burst with pollen.
When the plane collided with construction equipment, on the upper deck the bang was a thud; Mum sat dressed in her favorite outfit for overnight flights, a pajama-suit.
I wanted to let Mum know I’d tell my kids everything. I’d tell them how Mum took hold a woman’s arm, urine staining dark the woman’s jeans, while a man stood, fist clenched white and arm cocked back, as she led the woman away, staring at the man resolute. About the day she dove into the treacherous waters off Potter’s Cay to save the local drunk.
In my head, tips of fingers, my heart pulsed fast.
In The Bahamas,
We’d walk miles to a cave-pool littered with insects gliding on water, pollen-dusted;
Slog through swamp to see a bird;
Sleep in cabins, perched like crabs on white sand,
To the sound of sea-air sieved by whorled leaves.
We’d speed in a skiff across salt flats
—wrinkled by a wind cut against the tide—
As the sun shone gentle,
Silvering crests and pulsing stars
Soon after the plane skidded to a stop, wind and fire shredded upper-exit chutes. On the stairs Mum was a teacher, knowledgeable and controlled, confident in her decisions; she resented the smoke that scalded. The next moment she was a mother, self-assured and strong; it was for her family she fought the flames. Then she was a lover, adversary and friend—married; adrenaline battled dizziness. A second later, she was a woman, wondering how it could all be happening, people around her fainted; her left side…it was as if…it was on fire; she was a child and thrusted, twisted, howled helpless.
Chest tight, I gasped.
I wanted to tell her it was okay.
Mum kept leather-bound volumes of her travels,
Sherpa-guided hikes with luggage-strapped yaks,
Himalayan star-lit campsites;
Green Kashmiri eyes shielded shy in a shawl;
Scents of incense flowers, earth and spice;
Sounds of a village sing-sing, Dayak sape.
The old woman wailed from inside her throat.
Behind me, Paul sighed. Mohammed creaked his chair, whispering over my shoulder, “Would you like me to go in?”
I said yes.
Mohammed entered the coroner’s office through a white doorway. In an instant he reappeared, stone-faced, and stumbled past us. We followed him into the courtyard where men clashed tiny symbols rapid, rapped sticks together in a furious rhythm.
Incantations cloaked; cultures on full display overwhelmed, until I realized
Mum was with us:
She was with us as we held Mohammed who shook and wept; among the garlands of flowers strung across brass kumbhas; the marigold-wall; in the monk’s drone, chanting mouth agape as a body wrapped tight in a white sheet slid from men’s shoulders into an open cremation chamber.
She was with us when Nuns took our hands and we stood around her coffin, sang hymns.
She was with us when an old man spoke to us in Chinese, sang his words soft and high placing them alongside our pain; as I opened a suitcase we thought was hers.
She was with us when we crossed Pont Hafren into Wales; among tiny cottages knit chevroned along the valley floor; the grass, ferns and shrubs tinted green-brown and red, dashed purple, streaked silver; in the humble church whose wagon-vaulted ceiling echoed the song Pie Jesu, jumped its signature on stone slabs, rang it bright off narrow windows in beefy walls, and hummed simple benches rich: sounded a faultless timbre in our ears, chests and touched our souls.
Greed stole Mum’s life, but she is with us
I can see her:
Ahead of my children, who laughed and whipped their paddles to stream water at my back, among the clammy azalea, the bearberry and boneset glowed bright, in the emerald-sapphire columns propping my board;
At the campsite at Paine’s, among the White Pines stretched high feeding on sunshine, soughing tranquil, the pathways bright with shattered-shells, in the tidal bays we waded in search of diamondback turtles about to hatch: I saw her the morning a sparkled air snapped our sail brilliant—when back-stretched, we leaned over our “cat boat” to speed over oyster beds, across the bay toward the nature sanctuary before Jeremey’s Point.
On my paddle-board, I turned and smiled.
I can see her.
Christopher Rabley lost his mother, Margaret Rabley, in the infamous crash of Singapore Airlines’ Flight 006. Since then, Christopher started writing short stories, poetry and recently began work on a novel, The Secret Sleeps. Born in the Bahamas, he attended preparatory school in England and later graduated from University of Miami School of Law, serving as Editor-in-Chief of The International and Comparative Law Review. He has three children and lives near New York City.