Across the Water
By Vineetha Mokkil
There are two possible endings to her story. She gets out of the boat alive and breathes in the scent of a new day, a new life. Or she doesn't. She knows this when she steps on the boat with her father, uncle, aunt and cousin. It is a gamble they have to take.
The boat could ferry them across the sea or dump them in the freezing depths where fishes dive like synchronised swimmers. They will see Sameera flail around and drift past her without blinking. Schools of fish will watch her drown, perhaps not unkindly. She thinks of them as gentle creatures. The underwater world has rules: not even sharks kill for sport.
The boat starts up with a low, menacing growl. Sameera huddles under a blanket with her cousin, wishing she had not hidden in her bedroom two summers ago when her uncle had offered to give her swimming lessons. She had been a coward at 10, afraid of the water, scared to step out of the house after dark, always on the lookout for an excuse to crawl into bed with her parents at night. "You're not a baby now, baby," Ammi would laugh, gathering her in her arms. Ammi's embrace was the warmest, safest place in the world. But that place now exists only in Sameera's dreams. It's gone, smashed to rubble by gunfire, missiles and stealthy drones.
Ammi and her friends were out in the backyard when the drone swooped down from the sky on a summer's day. There wasn't a cloud in the blue sky. Ammi was plucking olives. She was carrying her favourite cane basket and once it was full, she would come back into the house, feed her friends lunch, and get around to pickling the olives. It started off as an ordinary day, that blood-soaked April noon. Nothing had prepared Abba and Sameera for it. There were no signs, no word of warning from the Almighty, not even a dark cloud in the sky to announce the arrival of the murderous drone.
"Are you okay?" Ahmed asks, peering at her from under the blanket they shared. Her cousin is only a year older than her but he enjoys playing big brother. "Sameera, don't go out alone." "Sameera, you talk too much for a girl. Don't crack jokes. Watch your tongue." Ahmed is always trying to boss her around. He won all the track-and-field championships at school but his grades were pathetic. At the end of every school term, his father compared Ahmed's report card to Sameera's and wept. "Don't worry, uncle," Sameera consoled him, making sure Ahmed was within earshot. "I'll help him with his homework".
No wonder Ahmed hated her. His track-and-field glories were eclipsed by her academic feats. "If a missile hits our town, I'll be the first to run to safety," he liked to boast, pointing at the shiny trophies on his shelf. "Your nose will be buried in a book and you won't even notice if the whole place blows up."
Ahmed couldn't run to safety when the fighting started. There was nowhere to run to. The missiles pounded houses and offices, reducing their hometown to a ghost town. Gunshots rang out day and night. The air reeked of smoke and death. The stench was unbearable. Sameera thought she would go mad. The drone snatched Ammi away and Abba had aged 10 years since that day. His hair had turned white, his cheeks were sunken, and a hunted look was etched on his face. He was lost without Ammi and Sameera felt him drifting farther and farther away.
It was her uncle who decided it was time for them to leave. Abba was too confused by sorrow to see things clearly. He didn't have the energy to make arrangements to get them on a boat. Everyone they knew was looking for a way out. There were many desperate people and few boats. The agents gauged the measure of the town's need and put a price on it. They made sure that if Sameera's family didn't cough up the exorbitant sum of money they demanded someone else would. The competition to get on the boats was cut-throat even though the whole town knew there was no guarantee of safety or how the journey would end.
Sameera has found a way to get used to the boat's sudden movements. She lets her body move with it as if she is dancing to a tune. The sea sets the tone, the boat follows the beat, and Sameera gives in to the rhythm. She breathes in the wet, salty air and watches the stars draw strange patterns in the sky. Abba and her uncle are whispering to each other. She couldn't follow what they are saying but the sound of their voices is a familiar comfort.
"So you think you'll be first in class when we join a new school?" Ahmed hisses in her ear. He tugs at her necklace to get her attention. He has short, stubby fingers and has forgotten to trim his nails before getting onto the boat.
"Don't break it," Sameera rolls her eyes at him. "It was Ammi's favourite and she gave it to me." She had seen Abba staring at the necklace when they stepped out of the house. He must have remembered how beautiful it used to look when it was clasped around Ammi's slender neck.
"Sorry," Ahmed says gruffly. He opens his mouth to say something more but decides to shut up. Her cousin is a pain in the neck but he could be a decent human being if he tries.
"Don't worry," Sameera says, keeping her eyes on the stars. "I'm going to be first in class. New school, old school – all the same to me."
"New school, old school," Ahmed mimics her in a nasal voice. "I'm always first in class."
"Shut up," she says, poking him in the ribs. "Look at the stars up there. They're so pretty."
"Hmm," he grunts, pulling up the blanket over his face. "I'm going to sleep."
It is almost daybreak when she opens her eyes. Pale light glints off the water. She sees the shore in the distance, shimmering before her eyes. She wants to lean over the railing and touch it, grasping the future with both hands so that it will never slip away from her embrace.
The boat starts to rock from side to side like a sapling in the wind. "Don't worry," Ahmed shouts, so that he could be heard above the wind. "It's nothing. We're almost there." She reaches out for his hand and they stand shoulder to shoulder, trying to keep their balance, as the elements gang up on them.
The boat is too creaky to put up a fight. It goes down with a shudder. The water is so cold, she screams when she hits it. The cry sucks all the air out of her lungs and she is sinking fast. The sea is above, below, and around her. Ahmed is drifting away from her and she calls out to him, Abba, her uncle and aunt. The water muffles her cries. She thrashes around, looking for something to hold on to – passing flotsam, wreckage from the boat, a piece of rubble to keep her afloat. She is numb. She cannot feel her arms and her feet. Her teeth chatter.
"New school, old school," Ahmed's chant rings out in her ears. She hears his laughter drifting towards her in the wind.
"Ahmed?" she calls out his name, hoping he could hear her. "Ahmed, is that you?"
"Are you going to be first in class in the new school?" he asks, raising his voice.
"New school…old school…all the same to me," she chants, flapping her arms like a bird about to take flight.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 1 Jan 2016