Two and a half weeks after
I was born, on July 9th, 1958, the plates that make
up the Fairweather Range in the Alaskan panhandle
apparently slipped twenty-one feet on either side
of the Fairweather fault, the northern end of a major
league instability that runs the length of North America.
The thinking now is that the southwest side and bottom
of the inlets at the head of Lituya Bay jolted upward
and to the northwest, and the northeast shore and
head of the bay jolted downward and to the southeast.
One way or the other, the result registered 8.3 on
the Richter scale.
The bay is T-shaped and seven
miles long and two wide at the stem, and according
to those who were there it went from a glassy smoothness
to a full churn, a giant’s Jacuzzi. Next to
it, mountains twelve to fifteen thousand feet high
twisted into themselves and lurched in contrary directions.
In Juneau, 122 miles to the southeast, people who’d
turned in early were pitched from their beds. The
shock waves wiped out bottom-dwelling marine life
throughout the panhandle. In Seattle, a thousand miles
away, the University of Washington’s seismograph
needle was jarred completely off its graph. And meanwhile,
back at the head of the bay, a spur of mountain and
glacier the size of a half-mile-wide city park–forty
million cubic yards in volume–broke off and
dropped three thousand feet down the northeast cliff
into the water.
This is all by way of saying
that it was one of the greatest spasms, when it came
to the release of destructive energy, in history.
It happened around 10:16 p.m. At that latitude and
time of year, still light out. There were three small
boats anchored in the south end of the bay.
The rumbling from the earthquake
generated vibrations that the occupants of the boats
could feel on their skin like electric shock. The
impact of the rockfall that followed made a sound
like Canada exploding. There were two women, three
men, and a seven-year-old boy in the three boats.
They looked up to see a wave breaking over the seventeen-hundred-foot-high
southwest bank of Gilbert Inlet and heading for the
opposite slope. What they were looking at was the
largest wave ever recorded by human beings. It scythed
off three-hundred-year-old pines and cedars and spruce,
some of them with trunks three or four feet thick,
along a trimline of 1,720 feet. That’s a wave
crest 500 feet higher than the Empire State Building.
Fill your bathtub. Hold a
football at shoulder height and drop it into the water.
Imagine the height of the tub above the waterline
to be two thousand feet. Scale the height of the initial
splash up proportionately.
When I was two years old,
my mother decided she’d had enough of my father
and hunted down an old high school girlfriend who’d
wandered so far west she’d taken a job teaching
in a grammar school in Hawaii. The school was in a
little town called Pepeekeo. All of this was told
to me later by my mother’s older sister. My
mother and I moved in with the friend, who lived in
a little beach cottage on the north shore of the island
near an old mill, Pepeekeo Mill. We were about twelve
miles north of Hilo. This was in 1960.
The friend’s name was
Chuck. Her real name was Charlotte something, but
everyone apparently called her Chuck. My aunt had
a photo she showed me of me playing in the sand with
some breakers in the background. I’m wearing
something that looks like overalls put on backward.
Chuck’s drinking beer from a can.
And one morning Chuck woke
my mother and me up and asked if we wanted to see
a tidal wave. I don’t remember any of this.
I was in pajamas and my mother put a robe on me and
we trotted down the beach and looked around the point
to the north. I told my mother I was scared and she
said we’d go back to the house if the water
got too high. We saw the ocean suck itself out to
sea smoothly and quietly, and the muck of the sand
and some flipping and turning white-bellied fish that
had been left behind. Then we saw it come back, without
any surf or real noise, like the tide coming in in
time-lapse photography. It came past the hightide
mark and just up to our toes. Then it receded again.
“Some wave,” my mother told me. She lifted
me up so I could see the end of it. Some older boys
who lived on Mamalahoa Highway sprinted past us, chasing
the water. They got way out, the mud spraying up behind
their heels. And the water came back again, this time
even smaller. The boys, as far out as they were, were
still only up to their waists. We could hear how happy
they sounded. Chuck told us the show was over, and
we headed up the beach to the house. My mother wanted
me to walk, but I wanted her to carry me. We heard
a noise and when we turned we saw the third wave.
It was already the size of the lighthouse out at Wailea.
They’d gotten me into the cottage and halfway
up the stairs to the second floor when the walls blew
in. My mother managed to slide me onto a corner of
the roof that was spinning half a foot above the water.
Chuck went under and didn’t come up again. My
mother was carried out to sea, still hanging on to
me and the roof chunk. She’d broken her hip
and bitten through her lower lip. We were picked up
later that day by a little boat near Honohina.
She was never the same after
that, my aunt told me. This was maybe by way of explaining
why I’d been put up for adoption a few months
later. My mother had gone to teach somewhere in Alaska.
Somewhere away from the coast, my aunt added with
a smile. She pretended she didn’t know exactly
where. I’d been left with the Franciscan Sisters
at the Catholic orphanage in Kahili. On the day of
my graduation, one of the sisters who’d taken
an interest in me grabbed both of my shoulders and
shook me and said, “What is it you want? What’s
the matter with you?” They weren’t bad
questions, as far as I was concerned.
I saw my aunt that once,
the year before college. My fiancée, many years
later, asked if we were going to invite her to the
wedding, and then later that night said, “I
guess you’re not going to answer, huh?”
My father, Jean-Baptiste
Sanson, had christened in the church of Saint-Laurent
two children: a daughter, who married Pierre Hérisson,
executioner of Melun, and a son, myself. After my
mother’s death he remarried, his second wife
from a family of executioners in the province of Touraine.
Together they produced twelve children, eight of whom
survived, six of whom were boys. All six eventually
registered in the public rolls as executioners, my
half brothers beginning their careers by assisting
their father and then myself in the city of Paris.
My name is Charles-Henri
Sanson, known to many throughout this city as the
Keystone of the Revolution, and known to the rabble
as Sans Farine, in reference to my use of emptied
bran sacks to hold the severed heads. I was named
for Charles Sanson, former adventurer and soldier
of the King and until 1668 executioner of Cherbourg
and Caudebec-en-Caux. My father claimed he was descended
from Sanson de Longval and that our family coat of
arms derived from either the First or Second Crusade.
Its escutcheon represents another play on our name:
a cracked bell and the motto San son: without sound.
You want to know–all
France wants to know–what takes place in the
executioner’s mind: the figure who before the
Revolution wielded the double-bladed axe and double-handed
sword and who branded, burned, and broke on the wheel
all who came before him. The figure who now slides
heads through what they call the Republican Window
on the guillotine. Does he eat? Does he sleep? Do
his smiles freeze the blood? Is he kind to those he
kills? Does he touch his wife on days he works? Does
he reach for you with blood-rimmed fingernails? Did
he spring full-blown from a black pit to send batch
after batch through the guillotine?
Becoming shrill, my wife
calls it, whenever I get too agitated in my own defense.
“What struck people’s
minds above all else,” Livy, the great Roman,
wrote in his History on Brutus’s sacrifice of
his own sons for the good of the Republic, “is
that his function as consul imposed on the father
the task of punishing his sons, and that his unbendingness
compelled him personally to order the execution, the
very sight of which was not spared him.” In
Guérin’s rendering of the scene, the
hero turns away but does not blanch. Standing before
it in the old Royal Academy with Anne-Marie, I told
her that perhaps this is the way we attain the sublime:
by our fierce devotion to the required. She was not
able to agree.
I am a good Catholic. The
people’s judges hand out their sentences, and
mine is the task of insuring that their words become
incarnate. I am the instrument, and it is justice
that strikes. I feel the same remorse as anyone required
to be present at an execution.
Before the Revolution, justice
was apportioned and discharged in the name of the
King, who ruled by divine right as one of God’s
implements. Punishment of malefactors was God’s
will and therefore earned for his sovereign minister
God’s grace and esteem. But in the eyes of most,
that grace and esteem did not extend as far as the
sovereign’s handservant. Before the Revolution,
daughters of executioners were forbidden to marry
outside the profession. When their girls came of age,
such families had to display on their doors a yellow
affidavit clarifying the family’s trade, and
acknowledging the taint in their bloodline. Letters
of commission and payments were not passed into their
hands but dropped before them. They were required
to live at the southern ends of towns, and their houses
had to be painted red.
Before the Revolution, a
woman with whom I dined at an inn demanded I be made
to appear in court to apologize for having shared
with her a dinner table. She petitioned that executioners
be directed to wear a particular badge or color upon
their coats or singlets so that all would know their
profession. Before the Revolution, our children were
allowed no playmates but one another.
For lunch today there was
egg soup with lemon juice and broth, cock’s
comb, a marrowbone, chicken fried in bread crumbs,
jelly, apricots, bread, and fennel comfits. Clearing
the table, Anne-Marie reminisced about a holiday we
took when the children were small. When she speaks
to me, she holds the family before us like a pleasing
little stove. At first she was able to treat this
terrible time as a brigand unable to trespass upon
the better world she bore within.
With children, everything
and nothing registers. My earliest memory is of the
house outside Paris, and the height of the manure
pile, and the muck dropped by the household geese.
I remember flies whenever one went outside. I remember
my mother’s calm voice and associate it with
needlework. She was fond of saying that I had no ideas
of grandeur and that she would wish that to continue.
My grandmother always chided me for losing even a
crumb of my bread, since, as she put it, I couldn’t
make for myself even that. My father was a quiet man
who, when it came to my understanding the world, resolved
that his little boy should become a person capable
of self-sufficiency, so he allowed me to negotiate
my own passage through that household. I was perceived
to be headstrong but inhibited. I was sent away at
an early age and then pitched from school to school,
since the moment my classmates uncovered my family’s
profession, life became unbearable again. I wrote
my mother a series of supplications outlining my misery
and pleading for a response. In a cheerless chapel
in a school in Rouen—my fourth in as many years—I
received my father’s letter informing me of
He remarried; the house was
repopulated with half brothers and sisters; I stayed
away at my schools. I matured into a beanstalk whose
expressions excited pity on the street. My teachers
knew me as dutiful, alert, frugal, and friendless:
a nonentity with ambitions. I was often cold and known
for my petitions to sit nearer the room’s hearth.
I volunteered for small errands so that in solitude
I might gather the strength to face the rest of the
day. I wrote to myself in my notebooks that I felt
my bleak present within me and ached to my bones with
wondering if loneliness would always be the measure
of my days.
Anne-Marie was a market gardener’s
daughter in Montmartre, her father’s establishment
a luncheon stop on my infrequent visits home from
school. She was his eldest, born the same day as myself,
and when we first conversed I imagined that we had
loved each other from that date, unawares.
Her first act in my presence
was to scratch at a rash on her foot until chided
by her father entering the room with the roast. She
visited the water closet, and back at the table returned
my gaze as if examining a distant coastline. She was
still chewing a bit of carrot. From that first meeting
I have perched perpetually, in a kind of dreamy distress,
on the very edge of relieving my longings. Her lovely
large mouth and deep-set eyes with their veiled expression,
and her child’s posture have been my harbor
and receding horizon. Her seat, that first luncheon,
was in the sun, and her skin was so fine I could see
the circulation of her blood. When she blushed, I
could feel the warmth.
Like You'd Understand, Anyway by Jim Shepard Copyright
© 2007 by Jim Shepard. Excerpted by permission
of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights
reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced
or reprinted without permission in writing from the