Content warning: war
Amara stands on the shore, shifting in the cool wind. In the time it has taken to stand here, Amara has grown a full inch. Shouldn’t this moment feel bigger, too? She squints to see any speck of the island across the sea. Chios. A gorgeous beach to tourists. To the people waiting here on Cesmus, it is a door that leads to an entire new world.
Safety. Maybe even home.
Amara just wants to get this last part done. But this crossing, like all of the others, means starting with an argument. She knows she should sit by her mother, Muna, who is crouched down under a blanket. Even though it’s tattered, it’d be warmer than standing here with the wind whipping her face. Waiting. Watching Baba flail his hands in order to add drama to the fight with the smuggler.
I am so tired of sitting. The van, the truck, the hiding... I want my legs to stretch me as tall as I can stretch, Amara thinks.
Other waiting kids tell her how crowded the boats are. “They pack you in like an anchovy and you can’t move for an hour!” She’d already heard that at the camps, which were crowded, too. She had heard whispers about lost children. She bites her lip at the thought. I have to survive, I’m the only child left...
They tell her other things. There’s a serpent under the water, made by the same Europeans that created Vikings and witches that ate little children. The serpent doesn’t want any more Syrians to cross the sea.
“It’ll come up and swallow the boat if any children on it ever stole anything, even a single crumb of a cookie. The smugglers say he’ll come if you cry anywhere near the water,” a boy named Hamza says, and someone, maybe his older brother, pinches him and tells him to stop scaring the children.
Of course it’s just a mean story. She’s 9 now. She didn’t believe in that stuff anymore, it can’t scare her. Well... maybe just a little.
But... there is the matter of the chocolate from that irresistible red box. Where all the chocolates had sat neatly packaged in their own little homes. Packed just like the buildings in Aleppo used to be, one cozy one next to the other. Amara is too young to remember seeing it whole. When Amara was six, she snuck a chocolate from the shiny packaging from Jiddo and Sitti. Her heart throbs at the memory. She should have told them the truth about taking it when she had the chance.
She wonders if they get chocolate boxes like that in heaven, in Firdaus, the highest level of heaven one could attain. That’s where everyone says you go if you die in an explosion like the one that took Jiddo and Sitti. Or everyone else.
Heaven can’t be lonely for Syrians. I just hope there’s chocolate.
Baba is yelling, again, about the boat. He points to the crowd of people and then shrinks his hands together to demonstrate the people to boat ratio. It is the same argument with every smuggler, just like every other stop from Syria. Complaints are shouted from every group huddled on the shore.
“We won’t all fit!”
“Who says women and children first? I paid the same fee.”
“I’m not leaving my bag.”
“This is my family album. It’s all I have left.”
Baba pivots away from the mustached man, who smirks. Whatever the fight is about, Baba loses it.
“They are going to take me on the next boat,” he says.
Muna shoots up from the ground, throwing the blanket off in one swift movement as if birthed from shock and anger. Amara clenches her jaw.
I won’t cry.
“No! You can’t!” her mother cries.
Baba ignores her and turns to Amara. There’s none of her brothers left to lecture. “Amara, stay in the middle no matter how much you’re pushed. Don’t sit on the side of the boat.” He hands her an orange life vest to strap on. She grips it, stares down at it. She is trading her Baba for this? She looks up at him.
“You can fit, Baba, please come with us?” she asks.
Baba shakes his head. “These waters have swallowed too many Syrians. I don’t feel like becoming breakfast.”
The mention of being swallowed by the sea made Amara shiver. She held the life vest close to her chest, and thought of a worn stuffed bear left behind.
“If you fall in the water, just lie on your back. Don’t drink the water.”
“Yes, Baba,” she said. She closed her eyes.
“Say the word when the policemen come. Remember it?”
“Asylum,” she said. They’ve practiced it daily for at least six weeks.
“Don’t sign anything you can’t read, ask for an interpreter, ok?” Baba says. Her mother pulls at his arm.
“No, Ahmad, you can’t leave us...what if--”
“Quiet. This is the only way. They’ll overload the boat otherwise. He’s the only runner who will see reason. The men go as soon as this boat comes back.”
“How much more is that costing?”
Baba doesn’t say anything. But Amara knows. The tan line on his finger tells it. His wedding band used to sit there.
“I don’t like it, Ahmad, what if--” her mother complains.
“Stop asking what if. Everything is ‘what if’ for us. It is so damn tiring. From now on, it’s only ‘what next.’ It’s more accurate. Now, get on the boat, Muna,” Baba orders. He is stern, but his eyebrows are lifted, eyes creased with worry. He looks Muna head to toe. He cradles her face in his hands. Wipes the tears. They threaten to enter his own eyes, stinging. He curses them. He couldn’t blur his vision on what might be the last time he can see his wife and daughter, and he pushes them down into his heart.
“Baba?” Amara attempts. Her voice cracks, so she stops. If she talks, she might cry. If he hugs her, she might cry, and her mother was already crying too much. Crying would call the serpent.
It’s just a story...
Baba kneels down and wraps his arms around her waist. She had grown so thin in these last few months, but he had, too. Amara kept her eyes closed.
“My sweet, shining, Amara. Remember what I told you. Pray for me. And I’ll be on the boat right when it comes back. InshaAllah.” God Willing.
“InshaAllah,” Amara says, her lip quivers. She throws her arms around his neck and breathes him in. He is sweat and salt and musk and maybe cigarettes-- but she wouldn’t tell on him.
“One bag! One bag only!” the runner yells at an elderly woman stepping over the side of the rubber boat. The runner wears flip flops and dark washed jeans. A Calvin Klein shirt. He scans the crowd, pushes aside arms waving money and passports. He yells and points at people to board. “On or off, now,” he orders, one foot on the black rubber.
How will we all fit on that thing?
“It’s so small,” Muna says. She holds the blanket tightly around her, as if to contain her panic.
“So you see, I have to wait,” Baba says. "With the other fathers willing to wait."
Muna shakes her head. “We promised not to separate. You promised us---”
“And I’ll beg your forgiveness when I step on that shore.”
“Is it really as beautiful as they say, Baba?” Amara asks.
Ahmad smiles. “The water is the color of a jewel, reserved for the most beautiful of princesses. On the shore, you’ll hear the call of mermaids, but just don’t go chasing them--” he says through a wicked grin.
“Ahmad!” Muna protests, but she’s hiding a grin, too.
“The people will stare at us, and call us names… but some will be kind. And to the first person that shares food with us, we will share Ummi’s famous kanafe.”
“InshaAllah,” Muna says, voice cracking again. “I’ll make it again. If I remember how.”
“Now or never,” the runner says in their direction, and begins pulling the rope to demonstrate that this was, indeed, time for launch.
“In the middle,” Baba says.
“In the middle,” Amara says.
Ahmad pulls them both close and pushes at the same time to the tiny boat. He ushers them towards the side with the women that aren’t the oldest but that have the kindest faces. He lifts Amara in and the others help her settle. Muna steps over the side. They pull their legs into their chests. The engine is howling, and the smuggler voices his annoyance as he pushes into his position. The passengers take turns yelling at him. Mothers, sisters, and grandmothers are on the boat. A baby at someone’s breast.
The beach is full of fathers. Lovers. Teachers. Friends. There are too many tears on the mens’ faces. Enough to fill an ocean.
The sea here must be the saltiest in the world, Amara thinks. Her body stiffens. Their tears may sink the boat.
Almost as soon as Amara touches the bottom of the boat, the tiny engine roars against the weight it wasn’t built for. With one heave they are off. Away from Turkey. Away from the trucks, the hiding, the running. The gun shots. There is a part of the world where the buildings aren’t crumbling. Not allowed the grace to crumble and erode with thousands of years of sun and wind, but brought to the ground with a push of a button. Not over thousands of years. Not even over a second.
Muna is crying, reciting the Qur’an. Amara stares at the shore until Baba is too small to make out among the other men. There’s a low moaning of the chorus of tears from the women on the boat. A baby is crying, and the driver of the boat is complaining that he’s getting a headache.
For the cost of my father’s ring, I wish the headache lasts all week. And if you don’t bring him to me, may it last your whole life.
The shore of Turkey is too far to see clearly now, as is the coast of Chios. Baba was right. The color of this water is like a jewel, but it’s dark. Cursed? People would come here and sit on the beach like she knew they must have done in Syria. Back in the history books.
Amara waits for the sea serpent. A shark. A whale. Anything. But the boat glides over the water steadily. She’s used to the cries and moans now that have become part of the hum of the engine. Muna’s eyes are closed tightly, with a steady stream of tears flowing down.
Maybe if they don’t fall in the water, the serpent won’t come.
She shook the thought away. The island came closer.
There’s a bigger boat, a better boat, as the shore closes in. They are coming for the black boat Amara floats on. And there’s people in bright vests at the shore, wading in towards her boat
Some are scared of the better boat.
“What’s that?” she asks Hamza, who is staring at the big boat. Red sirens rotate on the top.
The bigger boat speeds to them, and the black rubber boat chugs to the shore. The smuggler throws a rope to a man in glasses with salt and pepper hair and people start diving into the water. The boat bobs. There is yelling, so much yelling. There are too many languages. Amara clings to her mother as they ready themselves to leap.
The water is too cold, but there is ground beneath her feet. There are rocks that Amara can feel through her too thin shoes against her too thin feet. Someone is pulling on their arms to get to shore, but it is gentle. The people have on bright vests with symbols and patches that look familiar from the camps. The people are saying ‘Welcome’ to them in Arabic. There is a screaming match between the smuggler and the men on the serpent boat. He doesn’t flail his arms as well as Baba does.
The water is shallow. Shallower. And then the land is dry. But every face is wet.
The tears fall continuously, some people are ushering the travelers to tents, other travelers have their face to the ground or their hands lifted to the sky in prayer.
Amara’s joy boils in her chest, and then cools. She stares across the sea. She still can’t see Baba. Muna joins her, standing on the new shore. She has a new, untattered blanket around her and she wraps one on Amara’s shoulders.
“He will come,” she chokes the words out.
“I know, Ummi.”
A woman guides them to a tent, with hot coffee and tea and little sandwiches on white bread wrapped in plastic. A woman called Maria tells us she will get an interpreter so she can help.
These must be the mermaids, Amara thinks. Just wait until you try Ummi’s kanafe.
Amara turns back to the sea. She still won’t cry. The serpent won’t swallow Baba, even though she was 100% sure he had stolen in his life, too. Because he won’t cry. Her mother gives them freely, but not Amara and Baba. Not anymore. They save them, precious like pearls. He will save them. She is sure. And she will save them. When Baba gets here, they can cry together. A whole ocean of tears will surround them, on an island of safety.