by S. K. Azoulay
How long have they been walking? He had traded his watch for food three days ago. The man had given him a loaf of bread, some hard cheese, and a few withered vegetables in exchange, and had acted as if he was doing him a favor. He laughed, holding the gold-plated timepiece up to his ear. “Nobody wears watches anymore.”
It was about two hours ago that his son had lost one of his shoes in the sand. He only discovered this an hour ago, when he picked up the exhausted toddler to carry him in his arms. “Should we go back and look for it?” his daughter asked. He shook his head.
It must have been four or five hours since they had reached the shore. His wife was certain they would find a boat right away, but he was not so optimistic. They found the beach empty and dark, with no lights on the horizon but the glimmering waves, and so they started walking. In three or four hours the sun would rise— they must find a boat before that.
They walked up a ridge, and when they descended they found a small bay with a single fishing boat bobbing in the water. The father instructed his wife and two children to wait and carefully approached the boat. The fisherman sleeping inside was not surprised to see him, and after some back-and-forth he agreed to take the family across for a substantial sum.
The father gathered his family and they carefully boarded the rickety boat and crowded together in its narrow hull. The fisherman threw some old blankets over them and warned them not to emerge no matter what they hear; the trip should not take more than five hours.
Inside the boat, the sound of creaking wood filled their ears. His son asked if the boat was going to break, and he just patted the boy’s head and said, “Try to sleep, we’ll be out of here soon.” His children fell asleep from exhaustion and even his wife nodded off, but he could not bring himself to sleep. His ears registered every groan and creak of the wood, as if his consciousness was the only thing keeping the old boat together.
He finally drifted off, and even dreamed for a few seconds that the boat was sailing in circles, when a hand shook him awake. “It’s time,” the fisherman said. The boat had stopped about fifty meters from the beach.
“We’re too far away,” he said, “my children can’t swim.”
“Just hold them and paddle,” the fisherman said, sounding very anxious. “I can’t risk coming any closer.”
He looked at the shore, and a vague hope flickered in his breast. He tore open the lining of his jacket, took out a plastic bag, and paid the fisherman in crisp 50 Euro bills. He descended into the warm water and was glad to find that his feet reached the bottom. His daughter climbed onto his back and he slowly made his way to the shore and deposited her there.
He returned to the boat and his wife placed their still sleeping son on his shoulders, then descended into the water herself. He walked slowly towards the shore as his wife swam graciously by his side. Behind them, the fisherman called out, “Welcome to Europe!” and turned away.
By the time they reached the sandy shore his son was awake. The sun had not yet emerged, but the sky was growing lighter. The beach was empty and they all sat on the sand and looked back at the sea, at the fishing boat that was slowly disappearing from view. His son stood up and began walking up the beach, but he did not feel the immediate need to pull him back and warn him not to stray. They had almost no money left, they were tired and homeless, but they were finally here. He gave his wife a little smile. “We’re here,” she said, as if reading his mind.
He hugged his wife, and their son ran up to them happily, holding something in his hand.
“Look dad,” he said smiling, “I found my shoe!”