by Emma Musty
When I first saw the boats, I thought that we were saved. When the helicopter dropped food and water, I knew it — we would truly be imazigen, free people. When no one came back and the boat drifted further, I faltered in my belief until it fell into the water like the bodies before it.
We had been forgotten.
We were lost now.
I wished then that I had brought my flute. Of course, I wished for many other things as well, but they were too big, too much to dwell on. My flute is a voice that takes the responsibility of expression off my shoulders. It can be happy or sad. It can cry as delicately as a child or howl with all the fierceness of loss. It can say all the things that words cannot carry. It would have taken me away from this place for a little while. It has often sung my child to sleep. My Tarek.
The clink on metal, the cry of birds, the waves, are our only music now.
In my village there is no cinema but that does not mean I do not know about you. It does not mean I have not imagined living your life of high heels and bright pink, laughing mouths. I am not stupid. I know that compared to all you have we count as nothing. We are unwanted cargo.
When my husband was taken in the night from our house I knew I would not see him again. They say political prisoner. They mean death by execution in the dark quiet. I fled to the sea with this child of ours. I climbed upon this boat. Not because I was greedy and wanted to take from you but because if I did not we would die. Do you see? I have thought about it a lot these last few days as those around me have slowly slipped away. I have considered what it would take to let the innocent die. It is not much. No more than looking away for just long enough.
I prayed for the ghibli, the great wind that rips and tears our land and throws African sand onto European shores, to come and wash us to your coast. I practiced saying “Ciao!” thinking it would make you see that we are not so different, but you were clever, you did not get close enough to hear.
Where I come from there is so much desert that sometimes you forget that anything else exists. It goes for so far that you think it must be the end of the earth even though you know that it is not. It is a clever trick. When you live in a country that is not free you forget that somewhere there are options. You believe you could not exist in any other way. Sometimes, you have to force yourself to think like this but if you did not you would go mad. You become very good at forgetting.
When someone makes a stand for freedom at first you do not trust him or her. You feel fear but call it other things. My husband was in it from the start. I have not had a chance to follow. I imagined that when I was safely away I would speak up, but maybe this is cowardly.
It feels like my skin has crystallised. The salt has hardened on me. I catch glimpses of it in the moonlight of the long nights and it seems that I am covered in stars. I become bigger than myself. My body cloaks my sleeping child and for an instant I believe that I can keep him safe. The clink of metal lulls us. The wash of water has become a comfort.
In the morning all I can see is sea, all I can breathe is salt, and it swells our tongues and dries our throats. Everything is said with a rasp now. Words have become a decision you make before you speak them. I try not to cry in front of the boy, and he is too weak to cry in front of me. I know it is silly, but all I want is just one cup of hot, sweet, black tea.
The thought comes again, ‘Maybe, they will come.’
I know he would be proud of us for trying, my husband.
Often, now, I think of home. I catch myself slipping, thinking, “It was not so bad.” I know it is not true, but for just one second I would like it to be as it was in the evening time, after dinner when I saw my husband’s face through candlelight and could hear my child sleeping, knowing for now that he was safe.
I am no longer strong enough to stand while the boat is rocking. I topple over like a young palm tree in the wind. Tarek has not moved all day. I have to bend down close to check that he is breathing. The burning in my chest hurts more than hunger when I cradle him in my arms. I have been telling him that we are going to visit the Sultan of the Sea, that we will stay in his beautiful palace and have all the food we want and all the water we can drink. He smiled at me, he loves that story, but it is just a story, and all it did was lull him into sleep.
Tonight is too long, my skin has become the stars, my child is the brightest one, and the clink of metal has finally quietened.