watch, read, listen, observe, absorb
This story appeared in the Tower Writing Group Anthology. Winner of the Fellowship of Australian Writers National Literary ‘Community of Writers’ Award, 2012.
My brother was excited when he saw the lights. Tiny pinpricks on an almost invisible horizon line. We were well sea sick by then; all the passengers had been vomiting for days, a hopeless yellow vomit stealing from our body’s precious fluid. When Papa put us on board he said that the shipmaster would give us food and water and our neighbour had given us each a parcel, which she knew to be our favourite foods, carefully wrapped in a cloth that smelt like the naphthalene flakes she boiled her clothes in every Wednesday. She’d boiled our clothes with hers for the past six months too and when Papa told her we were leaving she’d cried but said it was for the best. When the boat left, it was night and we were instructed not to make a sound, the Shipmaster took our food parcels and shared them amongst his crew who were swarthy and sweaty and who my brother said looked like men our mother would have told us to avoid. Since then we hadn’t been given a drop of water or food. So you see, my father and our neighbour were both wrong.
I’d scolded him when he lost his shoes. The waves were big that day and it had made me angry that he’d taken them off. The shoes slid overboard and were consumed by the water and I asked him how he could be so stupid, have so little sense. When his eyes welled up with tears I remembered he was only six and forgave him, drawing his thin frame to me for both his comfort and mine. Later, a kind woman gave him her second pair. She wasn’t the only passenger to have a bag of spare clothes, garments for their new life, but she was the only one to offer anything. When we told her we were hungry she told us not to ask for food, it would just make them angry and we might be thrown overboard, besides we would be there soon enough and there we would have food and water and comfort. I wasn’t so sure but she was proven right soon enough when a man much older than Papa saw the Shipmaster drinking and very politely asked for a sip. The Shipmaster laughed. Perhaps this would have been the end of it but one of the younger passengers became angry on the old man’s behalf and there was a fight. The kind woman told us to look away and for the first time I was glad that our Papa wasn’t with us as it might have been him reaching out as his face disappeared beneath the sea.
Papa had told us that when we got there our mother’s cousin’s aunt would be there to greet us, and that she would help us begin a new life on this far away shore. It was something else he was wrong about but I don’t blame him, hope can be a powerful thing. But when we saw the lights I believed what he’d told us, and I was excited by the prospect of a new school, a nice house and children to play with. Everything that Papa had told us about. I planned to eat and drink until I made myself sick. Now with seasoned sea legs I danced a weak limbed jig with my brother, infecting the other passengers with our silliness. I remember even the Shipmaster allowed himself a small smile and started saying to the passengers that he’d told them so, hadn’t he told them that he’d get them here safe and sound? No-one denied this but neither had we forgotten the young man he’d murdered and so no-one gave thanks. The Shipmaster was angered by this and shouted to us that we were worthless and that we deserved whatever became of us. He said it was no wonder that we were the shit-eaters of the Caribbean. This made my brother giggle nervously and look at me; he’d not heard this before and wasn’t sure what it meant.
When the boat’s hull hit coral it was under the light of an enormous full moon that was still not enough to see the reef, not even where the waves had softened, beaten down by the curve of the bay. It broke with a miserable yawing moan. Before the screaming started there was a moment of silence and in this I heard the sea gurgling and sucking with need, already summoning our bodies below. My brother looked towards the lights then back at me, then with hope still in his eyes he kicked off, valiantly remembering the strokes our Papa had taught us, and I realised that it was this moment he had prepared us for and that he’d known that this would happen all along. I wanted to stay with the boat, even as the water swirled around my legs and threatened to pull me under but the splash from my brother’s feeble kicks told me I had no choice but to follow. The water was icier than the sea spray we’d felt on the days before. It cut through my panic and made me kick hard and fast. I would have lost him in the dark had it not been for his small hand on my leg as he sunk.
I floated on my back, his small weight on my chest, his breath rasping just above the water line. The heads of other passengers bobbed about, wailing, calling to each other, but I knew not all of them were there. Not all of them could swim. There were so many stars accompanying the moon that night, more than I’d ever seen in Port au Prince and they blurred with the lights on the horizon whose line I thought might be becoming visible though I couldn’t be sure and we stayed like that, floating, for a long time. I thought about home and the fear in Papa’s heart when he’d heard about the little girl down the street who’d been raped and shot and murdered because her Papa had simply spoken the truth and how he didn’t want that for me, no, anything was better than that and as I floated I wondered if he were right, that if I let myself sink, opening my lungs to the cold salty water, would it be a better fate. Then he shivered against me, recalling the night our Mama died and so I kicked off again in the same direction as the waves.
A wave picked us up. It was bigger and stronger than those before it and it seemed to have a purpose for us and with water rushing in our ears we held our breath and clung to each other and for a moment we felt weightless, air born, until we were pushed across the razor sharp rocks and it felt like my flesh was sliced to a million ribbons and I couldn’t hold on any longer and he was torn from me in the dark and the cold and the stars spun and I wondered if somehow we’d swum into the sky amongst the stars. The pain drummed in my ears, screamed in my mind, throbbed through my entire being. I realised I could breathe and that the hard surface below, though unforgiving and cruel, meant that I could stand and I was no longer at sea. The lights on the horizon danced and moved closer, and though I could have stood I lay there, wondering what had become of my brother and mourning his death though I didn’t yet know it as fact. The dancing lights turned out to be torches held by people looking for survivors, looking for me. When they found me they already had him, his small body laid out on a stretcher, a shoe hanging from his ankle by its laces. His little hand squeezed mine tightly and so while I knew this wasn’t the welcome Papa had planned, we’d made it.
Our new life had begun.