The Ark of Salvation
In my old smelly socks I place personal papers and some paper money wrapped in remnants of plastic bags to avoid their destruction from seawater. The night is dark when the smugglers inform us that the trafficking boat is near the shore and that tonight we have to be careful as the coast guard is nearby.
We do not know the smugglers’ names; they use nicknames. They drive us like cattle to the unknown. We are individuals from different backgrounds, individuals with a sole dream: salvation. A few minutes pass and we are there. It is a decrepit rusty fishing boat, but the crew keep assuring us that this is the best boat for crossing the Mediterranean Sea. We head to the tank where caught fish are usually stored.
A pervasive stench assails our nostrils. Other groups have come before us and have already claimed a space in that miserable place. We cram in so everyone can fit. Bodies stitch to bodies like those in sardine tins. We are just that: sardine tins ready to export.
Our number is complete and we are ready for the trip. As the boat cuts through waves, most of us start to vomit. They are mainly women and children who ride the sea for the first time.
There is a hole near the ceiling allowing air into the room. The door has to be shut so the coast guard does not spot us if they come across the boat. We feel the tightness of the place. Every now and then, the crew opens the door so we can breathe; other times they throw water bottles at us. The journey is expected to take no more than two days if things go as usual.
We enjoy the ride at first. Everyone is full of hope that soon we will reach the threshold of the old continent and that humanitarian organisations will await us there.
Later we become bored. The disposal of rubbish and faeces are now a challenge for some of us as we have to take turns to go to the only toilet outside, and there is a long queue. Some direct their shower towards the sea when they pee. Others shit in plastic bags and throw them far into the water. This is what we do at night.
Daytime. The crew forbids anyone outside on the deck. They fear the coast guard could recognise that the vessel is not the usual type of fishing boat. And then it comes—a silence falls on the room and everyone’s life stories stop mid-sentence when the humming of a helicopter echoes in the sky.
The crew orders us to halt all noise and motions. I even stop eating the last biscuit I have so they don’t discover us due to the crunching sound. The noisy helicopter gets closer and closer and my heart beats faster and faster as the sound loudens.
The sun sharpens above and we are in the open sea, an easy catch for the coastguard. We can’t see anything apart from glimpses through a small hole. One of us sits next to the hole, noting the copter’s movements like a football commentator. Some recite prayers and verses, others pray for the Virgin Mary. We all ask for heaven’s mercy.
The helicopter drifts away. We sigh with relief, and joy overwhelms us when the crew promises everything will be okay and tomorrow we will reach the land.
We return to our conversations. Each person has a different story. There is a man who has sold everything to pay for the trip. A woman who has borrowed from relatives. All have promised to pay debts after getting to their destination. Each person has their own reasons to leave, but all share the same goal. A new start for some, perhaps a dream for others.
Suddenly, footsteps above our heads quicken; they seem to run in various directions as we stand still in the darkness below—we do not know what is happening above. Then the sound disappears. No footsteps. Nothingness.
“They’re running away, they’re running away!” shouts the man sitting by the hole. All at once we ask, “Who’s running away?”
“Goddamnit, the crew’s throwing an inflatable boat on the water… They’re running away!”
We shout loudly, hoping to bring the crew back. The door is locked from the outside, so no one can leave. Women and children scream. We stare at each other. Is it possible that we have been left on the open sea, alone with no captain and no crew? How will we sail the boat, and where will we go?
We try to control the situation and put the women at ease with the assertion that the coastguard will find us with their satellite systems, radars and laser equipment. We vow that there is still hope.
The boat rocks in the sea and our only hope is that tiny hole. A single eye gazes from that hole to the horizon, and behind it we wait for the moment when a rescue boat, patrol or helicopter will save us. Our location is known only to those smugglers who have left us to face the unknown.
No one behind the helm, no compass, no anchor.
Hopelessness oozes into everyone in the room. The air becomes rare while a rife stench suffocates us, a mixture of vomit, faeces, body odour, fish, old walls and my smelly socks. There are only waves around us as we take turns to observe the world outside from that small hole. That is our only world now.
No longer do we desire the old continent. No longer do we seek humanitarian organisations. All we want is to see the sky and touch the land again. Any land, it no longer matters where.
Waves play with the boat, to the left, to the right and back to the centre. Darkness arrives, and there is nothing but the sound of the water splashing hard against the boat. The sea becomes a scary creature in the darkness. There is not enough light inside the room, and even the lights of mobile phones fade away.
We give up. All at once we look up to the sky and ask… Where is the salvation? You in the sky, why don’t you sink the boat—sink it!—and snatch us from this slow death!
I’m exhausted and my eyes surrender to sleep. The boat rocks me like a newborn baby in the cradle. Images invade my head. My childhood. My neighbourhood. All the faces I have met in my life appear one by one with fish masks on. These are the fish that in a few minutes, will taste the worst meal ever between their jaws. Perhaps the fish here are used to immigrant meat. For them we are not the first ones, and surely not the last ones.
I hold myself together, trying not to cry and start searching for a scrap of paper to write down these last moments. The last life confession. It must be the most beautiful and truthful thing I have ever written. It must be meaningful. I only find a single expression: Sorry. Sorry for the things I’ve left hanging in the air. Sorry, my country. Sorry, mum. Sorry, dad… brothers.
And thank you, the salty blue sea, for your warm welcome, even though we don’t have any passports and visas. Thank you for the shells at the bottom. Thank you for the seaweed that will get caught between our teeth, in our nostrils and eye sockets. We will be more beautiful when our corpses float to the surface and reach the shore where tourists push them back to the water just as they do with whales that by accident land on the coast.
As I hallucinate, the boat shakes violently. It hits something. Everyone is in a deep sleep, or at least that’s what I imagine. I hear footsteps above and a language I don’t understand. Together with other young men we move towards the locked door. Crazily, we start to hit it with our bare hands and shout in all languages, “Save us, please, we are here. Help.”
We can feel them trying to open the door. We scream. A few hits on the lock, and it breaks. The door opens and the light bursts into the room. For the first moment our eyes can’t see who those people are, only the light. As if they were aliens. They speak a language we do not understand. They try various languages. I realise I hear them asking in English, “Where are you from?”
I answer without thinking, “We are from Earth”.
I sense their astonishment at the answer. They ask nothing thereafter.
Hands pull us out like babies dragged from wombs. A new birth after the painful journey.
Eyes still cannot stay open. They refuse the light. They like darkness. They are used to it.
The boat is hauled to the shore, like a man sentenced to hang pulling the rope behind himself to the site of execution. When my feet touch the land, I break into a loud cry. I kneel to smell and kiss the sand of the beach. I’m not aware of my actions. I sit to watch the boat as they lay down corpses of children, women and the elderly, all in blue plastic bags. Each body has enough space now, to stretch. No more tightness and squeezing. They are free now.
I feel the desire to take revenge, on anything. I only find that miserable boat in front of me. I stand up in a hurry. I shout loudly and throw stones at its wrecked body. All the stones go into that little tiny hole we used for seeing the outside world. It swallows all the stones one by one.
The others see me and join. They scream and throw stones. The boat continues to swallow the stones through the tiny hole. It has become the black hole devouring the galaxies, until it sinks. We hear it screaming on the way down to the seabed. We look at each other. We are hollow, our souls still dwell in that boat where the dark room is. The boat seemed like Jesus’s body. We run towards it to erase our sins. That hole was all we have, anything else was nothing but nonsense.