You sail at dusk, not knowing one from the other. Moonlight leaks across the water like an oil spill. You see their faces bathed in the greasy glow: children, infants, women, mostly men. You cannot count how many people are in the boat, but you estimate at least thirty, perhaps forty. When it lay near-empty you couldn’t imagine how all of you would fit inside. But here you are, bumper to bumper, as Gertrude says of the downtown Dakar traffic, its hot-city stink, the sweat of a million bodies.
“Move your leg,” the woman beside you says in English. She sits, knees akimbo, sheathed in a wrapper the color of flowering pineapples. She wears a mauve shawl tugged up to her neck as if the sea breeze is too much of a balm for the heat. The shawl fails to mask the extent of her condition — six or seven months, you think. You couldn’t envisage Gertrude like this. You wouldn’t allow it. Not on this boat, alone, without her people around her. Then you remember — it will be roughly only one week before you reach dry land; this woman will not give birth between now and then.
The hull is a collision of greens and blues, with a red-pepper rim for added flair, and painted shapes — swirls and stars and triangles — for what purpose, you do not know. Ten planks cross the beam and there’s a little motor. That’s it. Just a cayuco, like the fishermen use.
“Jump in,” Sebastian said earlier as you waited on the beach. He might have seen the look in your eye; somehow you thought it would be bigger, that there might be a roof and rooms — a latrine at least.
“How sweet the sound,” people are singing toward the bow of the boat, “that saved a wretch like me.”
“Quiet! Quiet.” The pilot pats the air with his hands. He too uses the English words; you cannot understand much of what he says. You take in the bob and flick of his fedora as he lifts the anchor, secures ropes, carries out his last-minute checks.
“What did he say?” a man asks in Wolof.
“You’re asking me?” says another.
“Why are we going so slow?” asks a third.
The pilot makes the shushing noise and shouts “Quiet!” again, and the hubbub dies, save for a child’s thin voice, “Maman, je ne l’aime pas ici,” he cries. The child’s mother claps her fingers against the boy’s restless mouth, making the shushing noise herself. Even the babies are silent.
The waves lap against the side, a seductive, slurping sound.
The beach begins an unhurried retreat as the pilot and another man dig the oars into the ocean. A quiet plash, a heave, the tinkle of release.
Lights skip across the water from the villages along the coast — tiny fires, lamps like beacons, a few homes blessed with electricity. You want to tell Gertrude how beautiful everything is when viewed from a distance: the dotted lights, the moon, the undulating trees. You no longer see rubbish accumulating on roads; the blind, one-legged babas dragging infants from street to street, pleading for centimes; policemen ever ready to move you on when you present your face in the city.
“Good riddance,” Sebastian whispers beside you and laughs, and you think, good riddance, too. And why not? Weren’t you tired of shifting containers — of phosphates and ore and all the fish in the sea — from dawn to dusk, so that other people could grow rich? Wouldn’t you battle with the rest of them should the pilot change his mind and decide to return to shore?
Gertrude hardly showed the last time you saw her, though you loved to caress her belly after you made passion. Just a slight swelling, as if she’d eaten too much ceebu jën in one sitting. But who’s to say what might have happened had you remained at home: a public flogging, your family’s reputation in tatters, Gertrude thrown into the streets? Gertrude begged you to save her from becoming one of those girls left to fend for herself, from shame. So you fled, you and Sebastian. It was part of your dream anyway. Only Gertrude knew, and Sebastian’s younger brother, Idriss. You plan to send for her after establishing yourself in the new land. Then they’ll see who is a layabout, a good-for-nothing, a foolish child. Then they’ll wonder at Gertrude’s good fortune.
“Pardon,” you say to your neighbor, and you tidy your legs so she can lean back against the side of the boat and extend her own. Painted toenails, you notice even in this light, all the colors of the rainbow.
You give her a smile and she says, “Thank you,” not quite looking at you. She is more concerned with adjusting her shawl, making things comfortable for the baby. She arches slightly, lifting off the ground, perhaps to stretch her back, provide some relief. It’s a subtle gesture and one she is keen to camouflage, but you catch its sensuality. You wonder whether the moonlight accentuates her profile, the ascent of her face toward her cheekbones, her lips, which are full and moist. But how will she look in the morning beside you, asleep, a little drool clinging to the corner of her mouth?
. . .