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?
A growl, followed by a deep-bellied roar. A baby begins to bawl. The kick of the motor seems obscene in the evening’s tranquillity. When you look back, you can hardly make out the shape of the land. Just tiny, random lights and endless water, and the moon, the stars, a squad of low-scudding clouds.
The pilot laughs and tilts back his hat and conversation breaks out in pockets. The infant continues to cry.
Sebastian slaps a hand on your knee. “Easy!” he says. “This is it. Dead easy. Didn’t I tell you? The beginning of our new life. Wave good-bye to the old.” He turns and shakes his fist at the coast. “We’re on our way, man. We’ve made it. What did I tell you?”
“You said it,” you say. “I wasn’t sure, but look at us. We’re almost there.”
“We’ve made it!” another man says. He is sitting sideways from you, but he turns and gives you both a wide grin. He tries to extend his hand, but it’s an awkward maneuver. “Boubacar,” he says.
“Sebastian,” Sebastian tells him. “This is my good friend from infancy, Mamadou.”He makes a gesture to indicate the height of a rodent. Mamadou is only one year older than you.
Boubacar nods at the woman beside you, but she says nothing, only nods back at him and looks away.
“Where will you go,” you ask Boubacar, “after we arrive in the Canarys?”
He puts a finger to his lips and looks about as if you are discussing state secrets. He has deep frown lines and a mass of receding, unkempt hair, two scars either side of his face. You wonder if he is Fulani. Mid-thirties, perhaps early forties. A back as broad as a wrestler’s. “I try for France,” he whispers. “Paris—where my brother is. If no luck, maybe I go to Holland. And you—what of you?”
You glance at Sebastian, whose eyes are already narrowed in warning. You tense up, not sure how much you should reveal. One thing to extract information from others, completely different to have the tables turned. Who asked you to open your big mouth?
Sebastian hunches his shoulders and looks down between his legs, at the wooden planks, the little parcel of water sloshing back and forth, at the striped plastic bag containing your food for the journey, his own change of clothes.
“They say Holland is fine,” you whisper. “Even London or Spain.”
“So you want to go to London?” Boubacar seizes the word, sweeping from you to Sebastian and back again. ‘London is fine isn’t it—I was thinking I might go there. I will join you. You know people there?”
Your stomach clenches. Sebastian nudges you.
“Or maybe Holland,” you mumble, but Boubacar only stares into the horizon with a smile in his eyes, as if he can make out city streets and spires, the river Thames, the stuff of your imagination.
No one speaks for several minutes until Boubacar turns to the woman beside you. “You have some assistance where you are going? For the little one?”
She has a look on her face—somewhere between panic and incomprehension, but she does not respond. She might have dimples when she laughs or smiles. You have yet to see them.
“She doesn’t speak French,” you say after a moment. “Don’t you know?”
Boubacar’s gaze skips from the woman’s belly to the deep crevice between her breasts, settling on the cowrie shells dangling from her neck. She adjusts her shawl again. No one advised you to bring a blanket and now you’re wondering at the fading heat.
“Where you go?” Boubacar asks in English. “To which place you take bébé? To the papa?”
The woman looks at him for a moment, as if she can’t decide whether she wants to understand him or not. She turns away and says nothing.
Boubacar does not take his eyes off the woman. “There are here others,” he says with a flick of his head. “One carries a child—not big, big as your bébé. One child there—a girl, maybe three, four years. And two small pikin. Can you believe?”
She is resolute or stubborn; she barely glances at him. Eventually Boubacar turns back to you and Sebastian. You expect him to rattle off the names and occupations of everyone on board, but he only says, “Good luck to them. We are men, we are strong.”
You nod, perhaps too vigorously. You have little idea what you will do once you arrive in London. Sometimes you fantasize about buildings that reach into the clouds, trains that burrow underground, two or three automobiles for every person. Isn’t that what you have heard, what you’ve seen on television? You do not know how you will fit into such a world, how you will earn a living. You cannot envisage your new life yet. More and more you are glad Sebastian is beside you. Always calm, your friend. And wise. You will be all right. You try to focus solely on the present, each hour of the day.
“Sokone—by bus,” Boubacar is saying to a man in an immaculate white caftan, which will surely be filthy by the end of the week. “And what of you?” He shifts away from you and Sebastian, and soon another group forms, with Boubacar holding court. A middle-aged man says, “Barca ou Barzakh,” in Wolof, and you wonder, is it really as stark as that—a choice between Barcelona and the afterlife?
“Gertrude will be sleeping, no?” Sebastian says. “She’ll be dreaming of you here at sea.”
You smile at this image of Gertrude, fast asleep, a hand on her stomach, your child developing inside her. You see her curled up on her mat, her parents five meters away, in their neat, one-room home. She is dreaming of you and your voyage away from her. You recall the slope of her neck, the curve of her spine, the way it leads between her legs to the softness you crave, the softness that led to this voyage across the sea, the boat rocking back and forth, back and forth. You are in the room, lying beside her. Behind her. Her parents are asleep. Her father snores. She parts her legs and sighs when you are joined. You sigh, too, in relief, in ecstasy, the boat rocking back and forth. She turns to kiss you and it’s Marieme. Or is it your neighbor’s face, your neighbor on the boat? And does it really matter?
You once made passion behind the latrines in Gertrude’s compound with only the moonlight to outline her heavy braids and her plump, sour face. It made your heart swell to know that she smiled only for you. That was the last time you came together, the week after she discovered she was with child.
“It’s better this way,” you say, and Sebastian nods. You discussed it together, you three. Gertrude and your boy will live in splendor when they join you. You never imagine a daughter, only a robust son. “Gertrude will be fine, even when her parents find out. They won’t throw her out. They’re not like that.” This is what you say to Sebastian, but really, what do you know? You were wrong to hope Gertrude might want to do away with the baby; you were wrong to think you’d become rich in Dakar. And didn’t Marieme love you? She said she did. But you were wrong about that.
Your hunger began at Fatou’s one afternoon. You and Gertrude sipping coca, Gertrude chatting with her best friend Marieme (long after Marieme had ditched you), the fan in the corner barely making a dent in the heat. Fatou keeps her television tuned to the sports channel, but on this occasion there was only a minor golf tournament—no names you recognized.
Fatou started skipping channels. She stood slumped against the counter and began to watch a drama, occasionally turning at the sound of a potential customer in the road.
“Yacine’s made a mess of her hair,” Gertrude said.
“You’re telling me.” Marieme turned from you to focus on Gertrude. “She should have gone to Madame N’Diaye. She knows how to plait.”
You drifted in and out of Gertrude and Marieme’s gossip and began to watch the program alongside Fatou: a couple and their three children, each with a room of his or her own. Charlie, the oldest child, owned a tomato-red sports car. More a man than a child. Whenever someone spoke, laughter erupted from an unseen audience. You hardly understood the rapid-fire jokes in English, but you watched how each child returned to his or her room, each room spacious and clean, decorated with images of film stars, singers, and an unknown cityscape in Charlie’s room.
You turned to Gertrude. She and Marieme were engrossed in their own affairs, which normally annoyed you, but this time came as a relief. You watched the comedy until it ended. Fatou stood up and wiped a damp rag across her spotless counter and sucked her teeth as if she’d been wasting her time.
On another occasion, you visited the café on your own.
“Where’s Gertrude?” Fatou asked.
You shrugged. “Are they showing that program again?”
Fatou changed the channel at the appropriate time, half past four, and you spent the next thirty minutes captivated. You and Fatou. You noticed sometimes, as she leaned against the counter, a dampness between her breasts—like a spray of sea water—the size of them mesmerizing. Not like Gertrude’s little bumps. But she was old, Fatou, perhaps as old as your mother. You noticed her, nonetheless.
Charlie became your mentor: his sports car; his yellow-haired girl; his ample room replete with television, computer, and phone.
You began to create lists in your head: a room, a car, a job involving computers. No more heavy lifting in the dockyard, sweat running into your eyes, flies settling on your lips, your boss yelling “Move it!” in your ear every two minutes. Sometimes you imagine a yellow-haired girl or a girl who is like Gertrude. Sixteen. But different. Like Marieme perhaps. A sweet girl not with child, a girl who can cook and clean and open her legs and smile without persuasion.
You catch a whiff of something familiar, comforting—the woman beside you is nibbling on a chicken drumstick. Your stomach rumbles; you didn’t realize how hungry you are.
“Let’s eat now,” you suggest to Sebastian, “before we sleep, why don’t we?”
He hesitates before opening one of the containers in the bag at his feet. This food is for tomorrow: rice sprinkled with pepper stew and strips of fried beef, bought from the market women in the village where you boarded the boat.
“OK—you eat half, I eat half,” he says. He passes the full container to you. “Tomorrow we’ll share another one. After that we can eat one each.”
The woman beside you stops chewing and watches as you attack the rice with your spoon. “Ah! You are hungry,” she says. She can hardly suppress her smile. There are no dimples.
“We eat something before we enter this boat,” you say. “Too much time pass when we are coming here. I have again hunger.”
“It’s the cold,” the man next to Sebastian says, “at night.”
“But we have one week,” the woman says. “If you complete your food, what can you do? Beg from someone? Steal?”
Sebastian laughs. “Don’t worry, Madame—I will hold our food. If I give all to this one, even tomorrow he will finish it.”
The woman chuckles before resuming her evening meal.
“Excuse,” Sebastian whispers, leaning across you, “to where are you going, Madame?” In a deft movement he relieves you of the container of rice, leaving you spoon-in-hand, still hungry.
The woman shrugs and looks away—cautious, surveying—then turns back and says, “Same as you. Same place.”
Your lungs fill with air—you are sailing together, you share the same destination. You cannot remember seeing this woman on the beach. Was she tall and graceful or squat in the legs? Perhaps she arrived after you? Was she already in the boat? You imagine that when she stands she shines, even with the size of her belly. As she strips the chicken you notice her fingers are long and slender, as are her arms, which are free of jewelry. Only her face puzzles you—she has elongated grooves either side of her nose. You wonder who would cut into a face like that when it has more than enough beauty in itself. “You are from Banjul?” you ask, trying not to raise your voice. “Freetown? Accra?”
She glances at you, tosses the chicken bone overboard, and wipes her fingers on a damp cloth she keeps wrapped in a small plastic bag. “Not Accra,” she says. She whispers, “Bissau—we cannot say. Did not they tell you? If they catch us, you just shut your mouth.”
“Guinea-Bissau?” Boubacar turns, voice booming, shunning his new group. “Ah! You have no people inside here. Look that side, look this side, you will not find them. Only you.” He points toward the stern, near the pilot. Half a dozen faces follow his directions, not taking in his words.
The woman sucks her teeth and turns away from Boubacar, away from you and Sebastian. You try to give Boubacar a hard stare, but he is already reengaging his group. You can’t imagine how it will be, a week or more in this boat with Boubacar picking up every word you utter. You wonder if you are allowed to move, if you can occupy another position. At the same time, you do not want to give up your place of rest against the side. Neither do you wish to move away from your pregnant neighbor, nor Sebastian.
You think of Fatou and her worn-out television, the comedy show, the family, the big house, Charlie; everything he says seems to stir the audience to laughter. The donut-eating episode is your favorite. Charlie and his brother and sister, red jam dripping down their chins to the floor. You were both appalled and delighted. You can’t imagine that kind of excess and yet you laughed. “White people,” Fatou said, shaking her head.
More and more you dreamed of escape, your arrival in a new place, in an unknown city. Sometimes Paris, sometimes you imagined life in New York or Montreal. It all depended on the conversations, the images on TV, the magazine spreads. Sebastian claims his cousin works in Singapore. He never reveals how he got there, even when you press him, and you suspect it isn’t true.
But you settled on London, you and Sebastian. He claimed it was easier to access and find work. In your fantasies you stroll along the London streets, your head held high. You always wear a navy-blue suit and white plimsolls, a red leather tie. Just like Charlie in the episode where he loses his job and is rehired by the end of the show. Someone spots you in your smart new suit. They recognize your worth without even speaking to you and hurry to offer you a job, along with an apartment. Perhaps a house. Within months you are a millionaire. You can never quite work out what the job entails, what rare, hidden talents you might possess, but that doesn’t matter.
And who won’t be good enough for Gertrude Diouf then? Won’t they beg you to send money? Won’t they line up, praying for an invitation from you, a ticket to paradise—your father, Marieme, Gertrude’s snooty folks, your colleagues in the dockyard, all the sneering faces in your village? Only your mother will retain her self-respect. No begging from her. But she will expect more than the others, you know this. In your fantasies, you never know whom to assist, whom to refuse, how much to hand out. You have sleepless nights contemplating your potential generosity.
“What age are you?” the woman beside you asks on the second day. She shields her head from the afternoon sun with her pineapple wrapper, pinching the corners like a tent. Sebastian persuaded you to pack a baseball cap, and you wore yours as soon as the morning sun appeared. Most people have eaten; some are talking, others doze to the constant drone of the engine. What else is there to do?
“I have twenty,” you say, which is not the truth. You are seventeen, but no one will be impressed by this. “And you?”
She makes a noise in the back of her throat and you realize you will not receive a reply. Instead you ask, “The bébé—it is boy?”
“How can I know?” she says. “It can be a girl. Fifty-fifty.”
“Fifty-fifty—that name is funny,” you say. “Is Guinea-Bissau name?”
“Well,” she says, smiling, ignoring your question, “maybe I call her Maria, from my sister, you know. Or maybe Graça.”
“And what of boy?”
She closes her eyes and is quiet, as if she is just beginning to give the matter some thought. “Before, I am going to call him Carlos, from my papa. But now, if I born him in the West, I can call him Angelo. Angelo or Ezekiel.”
“Ezekiel, that’s it.”
“Not Mamadou?” Sebastian says with a smile.
“Not Mamadou,” she says. “Not Sebastian.”
You notice a gap between her two front teeth when she laughs, not too pronounced. Just enough to be sexy.
“When I born my child, I will call him London—for London Town,” Boubacar says. He has been listening all the while, of course, with his back to you. You could whisper in someone’s ear at the other end of the boat and his radar would catch every word. “If you dey for Paris, you go name him Paris. If you dey for Holland, you go name him Holland. Nah so for every place: Madrid, Lisbon, America. My brother’s child, they call him Calais. They even suffer in that place.”
Ezekiel—that’s fine,” Sebastian says. “Mamadou, what of your bébé?”
You haven’t even considered what you will call your son. You suspect you will have no say in the matter, not with Gertrude’s folks around.
“Eh?” your pregnant neighbor says. “Baby? This tiny tot?”
“This small boy?” Boubacar cries.
Your face sizzles. A bubble of laughter erupts all around you, so you turn to your friend. “Gertrude will choose. Maybe we call him Sebastian.” This is the first time you have considered a name and it seems a perfect solution.
“That’s fine,” Sebastian repeats. He smiles for his audience. “A good name.”
Boubacar shakes his head and turns away. The woman beside you continues to laugh quietly as if the thought of you as a father is simply too far-fetched. The words “tiny tot” hurtle around in your head, and your face grows hot again. All the while you’ve been appraising her beauty, she’s thought of you as no more than a child. Isn’t she just like Gertrude’s folks and your parents, your neighbors, the workers at the dockyard, all the people who step on you day after day? But wouldn’t they fight to be where you are now, wouldn’t they trample over each other in the race to join you in London? Let them laugh, you think.
You can’t get up and jog to Fatou’s to watch TV, or play football with the men at the dock, or lead Gertrude to an abandoned factory and raise her wrapper and fuck into her the way she likes. You worry that others can read your thoughts, sense your anger. You have never felt more exposed. And this, the second day.
Sebastian says, “Why do they stop the moto?” And you realize the boat has been silent for some time; you can pick out voices from the stern, you hear the water lapping against the hull. The sea is an endless mirror, reflecting the sky. It appears so calm, you could walk across it. Like Marieme, it’s deceptive. She said she loved you, but that turned out not to be true. You feel your anger sway inside you like the slumbering waves.
“Let them start, quick, quick,” Boubacar whispers to his coterie. “Let them stop this nonsense.”
“God,” your neighbor says, “just make them start, oh. Make we not stay in this place for too long.”
You are all turned toward the pilot, to the activity in his area—three men leaning over the side of the boat trying to fish something out of the propellers. Minutes later, one of the men holds up an object, green and slimy, then hurls it back into the sea. This is followed by laughter, and the men sit down again, talking among themselves. The engine is silent.
“Make we na go, now!” A woman’s faint plea from the center of the boat.
You gaze out at the water, endless in every direction. Sebastian gives you a look; he might be devising one of his plans, but you wonder—where could a plan of his possibly lead you out here?
“Is it not hot?” Sebastian says.
“It’s hot,” you say, but simply to agree. Because hasn’t it always been hot, your arid village, the days on the dockyard in the punishing sun? Although on the boat it doesn’t seem logical—the baking afternoons, the frigid nights. The contrast.
Sebastian removes his baseball cap and wipes his head and face with his handkerchief. It doesn’t seem that hot to you.
Boubacar gets up as if there is something to see, action to take, followed by the man in the white caftan and another man beside them. Other men join them and the boat begins to sway.
“Cool it, people!” says the man on the other side of Sebastian. “They are waiting for the moto to rest. Sit down. You want to destroy all of us? We will move soon, you will see. Just cool it.”
Boubacar and the men sit down reluctantly; the explanation seems to make sense. The boat bobs gently and in a few moments people are talking and chuckling in muted tones.
You turn to Sebastian, but he only stares ahead of himself, unconcerned. A baby gurgles, a child cries, and sure enough, twenty minutes later, the engine splutters back to life. The water no longer seems vast and sinister, more powerful than you and this vessel and all the people within it. Water is only something incidental, like the ground or the sky, that helps you navigate from one point to another.
“You hear that?” Sebastian says on the fourth day, looking down at his feet.
You peer at his ragged running shoes, but you see nothing save for a consommé of sea water, lightly seasoned with shit and an accumulation of piss that did not quite make it overboard. “Hear what?”
He points his index finger upward, without looking up, and there it is—the cigarette trail of an airplane slicing through a pulsing sun. Only then do you hear its hushed, pampered progress across the sky.
“If we had more money,” you say to him.
“You mean Visa, isn’t it?” This, of course, from Boubacar.
Sebastian does not reply. He’s growing quieter each day.
“Much faster in the jet,” the woman beside you says.
Sebastian nods, but you can’t imagine how it would be, trapped high up in the sky in a metal canister. Somehow you feel more secure where you are now.
“A deep bath,” Boubacar is saying to his group. “I will enter inside. The hot water will cover me. I will fill the water with foam.”
“Me, I will order paella, first thing,” a chubby woman says. She’s wearing a pea-green tracksuit decorated with bright yellow bands, like tram lines. “That’s what they eat in Spain. I will eat and eat and eat—just watch me.”
Boubacar and his little group laugh; a part of you wishes you were sitting among them, being boisterous, being hearty. Sebastian says nothing. He only observes.
“What of you?” the woman beside you asks. “What can you do when we land?”
You think ahead, willing time to shift, imagining life three years from now—Gertrude, your sons, plates warming on the stove before dinner in your two-story house, a car to ferry you all over the city. But you cannot divulge this fantasy on the boat. Aside from bathing and eating properly, you wonder at the angle from which you will enter your new life. Who will assist you? Will there be a bed, a roof over your head, on a regular basis? Except for a brief list of contacts and phone numbers, you and Sebastian haven’t planned much beyond securing a place on the boat. Your fate will take care of itself.
“First, I will enter Novotel,” you say. “They will give me good room and I will lie down and sleep. Lie down—not sit down like this.”
This initiates a small cheer, a nugget of camaraderie around you. You are all tired of sitting cheek by jowl, dozing against one another. You never knew your knees, your back, could experience such pain for lack of movement. Still, you’ve adjusted to the stench of sweat and old vomit and rancid food and the soup of feces lapping at your feet, but you’re caught off guard by each fresh reek of vomit. You wonder why the lull of the boat is causing some to feel sick, when it seems the most natural, soothing motion to you. Somehow you know it will all be worth it in the end.
“And you,” your neighbor asks Sebastian, “what can you do?”
He doesn’t answer and for a moment you think he is going to ignore her. Perhaps he has gone mute.
“Sebastian,” you say, speaking for him, “he—”
“I will marry,” he says, nodding to himself, “the first girl, I will marry her. That’s it.”
Your neighbor’s eyes widen and Boubacar snorts, but nobody speaks.
“That’s the first thing?” you ask, because this is the first you have heard of his plan. “Who? Who will you marry?”
“Anyone,” he shrugs, “I don’t care. She will born me sons. We will have a good life.”
“A good life,” Boubacar says. “Sons. Big man.” He makes a little show for his group—rolling his shoulders in a display of mock bravado. “Big man,” he repeats and everyone chortles.
You try to stop him, you do. But Sebastian is up and on top of Boubacar in an instant. He swings his fists in what are meant to be punches, but really, what is he thinking? Compared to Boubacar, Sebastian is a child.
“Easy, easy!” one of the men calls. People are holding out their hands to avoid being struck in the crossfire as much as to appease the rocking boat.
You can’t recall your friend ever having been in a fight—not since school—and soon Boubacar flips him over and slaps him with the flat of his hand, one solid blow after another, until Sebastian can barely resist.
Is it the sun, you wonder? Is he seasick? Is he longing for the land? He falls beside you, dazed, and closes his eyes as if he is tired of life.
“Jesus,” whispers the woman beside you.
“He’s a small boy,” the man in the white caftan says. “Leave him.”
You wonder how things could come to this, a pregnant woman on one side, your friend becoming a stranger the farther you travel from home. And it strikes you that you have only this: your friend beside you, no one else. No mother or father, no Gertrude, Fatou, neighbors or friends, no colleagues at the dockyard or Idriss attending his stall, slipping you a free Fanta now and then. You think again of Marieme. She never explained. Your stomach tightens, relaxes, tightens again. Was it something you did or did not do?
On the sixth day, midmorning, the sun disappears. One moment it is there, bright and bursting in the sky, the next it is as if night has returned. The water begins to skitter and dance, and you all huddle close to shelter from the gusts. When the rain begins you feel grateful for its cooling rinse, the way it seems to pour right through you, giving you your first bath in almost a week. You look about at all the upturned faces, some drinking in nature’s nectar, others beaming with joy at the cool, clean conditions. The rain falls and it continues to fall, and you cannot help but smile.
Once, when you were seven, it rained so hard a road flooded close to your village. You and your friends took turns crossing the “river,” using an abandoned wooden door, paddling from one side to the other, back and forth. It seemed so simple, but it provided hours of pleasure. Now it seems simple, too, this crossing of a larger body of water, so simple you wonder why you hadn’t thought of it before. Why doesn’t everyone travel by boat to where life is sweet?
It rains and rains. The air seems alive with rage and light and darkness all at once.
And wasn’t Sebastian there that day, when you were seven? He was eight. You have both undertaken this journey before, in a way.
“When will it stop?” Sebastian asks. It seems in poor taste to complain. Yet others look to him and nod as if he has spoken for them. The rain has been falling for hours. The boat can no longer maintain its course as the rising wind buffets the water. Your clothes are soaked. Biscuits have turned to pulp. Babies’ nappies are sodden and the children wail in their increasing discomfort. People in the center of the boat scoop rainwater using their cups, pass the cups to those at the sides to empty overboard. After half an hour of this, the engine coughs, almost unheard. Once, twice, and falls silent.
“You see?” Sebastian says.
As if the journey were all your idea.
“God, oh God!” your neighbor cries.
“What kind of pilot is this?” Boubacar shouts.
“Where is the cover?” another man calls. “They should provide a cover for us.”
“What of the children?” the woman in the tracksuit says.
In the storm, no one responds. They simply huddle and hold on as the boat is tossed about.
The sky grows darker still and a single bolt of lightning reaches down and strikes the sea, illuminating the rest of your world; you can see for miles around—there is absolutely nothing: no boats, no birds, no trees, no airplanes. Only the waves, as high as houses, as they roil and crash around you. You realize for the first time how eager they are to flush you out of the boat. Another surge of lightning. And you see, for a fraction of a second, a shape in the distance—a ridge of something that could be land. It could just be the horizon. Yet your heart is unbound. You want to cry out to your fellow passengers, but Sebastian is thumping your arm.
“Take this!” he shouts, shoving your plastic cup in your hand. As if waking from a dream, you notice people bailing water out of the boat. But the waves only appear with increasing ferocity, one after the other, untiring. And you begin to understand how very small the boat is—just a big canoe—to even attempt to command the water, to travel from one continent to another as if you are merely crossing a stream.
“Jesu Deus!” your neighbor cries, struggling to stand, her shawl flailing in the wind. You want to slap her, beautiful as she is. You cannot work out what she is doing, where she is trying to flee.
The boat plunges forward as if diving into the sea, but it manages to bob up again. Your neighbor is no longer beside you. Boubacar vomits on himself, into the water between his legs. You realize your feet are no longer visible. Ankles have disappeared, calves are submerged. You try to scoop up water with your hands—your cup has already been lost to the waves—and it occurs to you that you are bathing in Boubacar’s half-digested sardines and crackers. Action seems pointless.
You think of Charlie, the sugared donuts, jam running down your chin, your children giggling in the backseat of your car. Gertrude beside you. No, Marieme. You try to hold onto this. You loved her. You love her still.
Sebastian turns to you and says, “My good friend, Mamadou,” and you cry out because, for the first time in days, he is smiling. You forgot, so easily, how things used to be.
But you drown, of course. You cannot swim. At the moment the clouds begin to break, the boat grows top-heavy and slides into the water amid shouts and screams. There is nothing for you to hold onto. You punch the water, hoping it will relent and offer you purchase, but you slip deeper into the sea with the sky opening up above, the sun just now winking down at you. Sebastian, Boubacar, your pregnant neighbor—you’re thinking now, you never asked her name. It seems unfair to see them kicking at the water, their pink soles waving at you from the surface. You can see Ezekiel, safe in his temporary home, unaware. And you smile somehow, all through your endless descent, understanding that his life will be very different from yours.