There’s a lot to learn about loss, grief and closure—maybe a myth—in “The Lost Ones,” Jennifer Percy’s cover story for the latest New York Times Magazine. Its two main subjects, Yuko Takamatsu and Masaaki Narita, have spent the last couple of years diving in the waters of Onagawa, Japan, searching for the bodies of their wife and daughter, respectively, who were swept away in the 2011 tsunami.
Could you do this? At first, perhaps, but could you devote so many years of your life to such a grim and heartbreaking task, each time swimming into the vast grave that took your loved one? These two men are unwavering in their focus and love; they’re just looking for corpses and know it, seeking a reasonable sort of end. The way Percy plainly and painstakingly sets out their journey is beautiful, and it kills you. She writes respectfully towards her subjects, preserving their dignity and sorrow in the details of her minimalist prose, but also sets up the wider picture by talking to Tetsuya Takagi, a forensic pathologist, about the logistics of finding the bodies and in what condition.
A few years ago, a tsunami victim washed up on the shore of Ibaraki as a skeleton with clothes on and bits of tissue on its chest. Clothes float and take longer to decompose than flesh, and so sometimes bones return in the shape of a body, held together by coats, pants, gloves and sneakers.
Fuck. If you wanted to consider your fleeting corporeality today, this is it. But it’s also a lot about what it means to be alive, or still alive, like Narita’s wife packing lunch for her lost daughter every weekend and letting it drift out onto the sea. The type of detail that will wrench your heart out in abundance:
Along the water, on the way back to the car, about halfway to the parking lot, Takamatsu stopped and closed his eyes.
“Listen,” he said.
Something like a heartbeat came from the ocean.
Takamatsu took a few steps toward some construction workers near a docked boat. The sound emanated from a long burgundy tube that descended into the water. Takamatsu said the tube must be connected to the fishbowl helmet of a diver.
“So what is it?” I said.
“It’s the sound of breathing,” he said.
Percy doesn’t editorialize all that much—she doesn’t need to, the story’s enough, and the way it ends will have you questioning if you feel devastated or lucky, probably both. Read it all here.