The Monster In Still Waters
A girl journeys through dangerous water to reach a country that might shelter her from war-torn Syria. In the still water, she encounters something that terrifies her.
I've always been in awe of the sea as it moves, drawing in as I breath in and then with a power that frightens it moves away as if alive, a giant living monster with ships clawing at its belly and though it grows it has no roots. How is it not alive when it eats? Even now, I feel the weight of the water as it laps at our boat hungrily.
With each swift lift of the wind, our boat shudders, quaking like a leaf in a storm and at the same time the veiny hand on my wrist tightens a smidgen more.
I want to tell my mother to loosen her hold on my hand, that she's hurting me but my tongue is frozen in my mouth and my eyes are fixed on the horizon where another ship sails, vast and monstrous compared to our small boat, as it nears. Father is too lost in his prayers to speak as his gaze fixes over the vast sea and then his eyes latch on the same ship as me. This sea can swallow mountains and cities if it has a mind to, and our small boat in this unchartered water will be nothing if it has a mind to drown us. Maybe it knows what awaits us is worse. Though the sea does not hunger right now, it's calmer than it was last night in the storm; still my mother does not sleep.
The calm terrifies her more; right now, everything terrifies her.
''Don't fear Ami please.'' I want to speak. ''Loosen your hand on my wrist and go to sleep and I'll keep watch over the few belongings we brought with us as we ran.'' This is the first time I've stepped out of my village and though the journey terrifies my mother, it gives me a feeling of exhilaration as if I've snapped unseen ropes and dirt to breath in air that is not tainted with cow dung, mud and hay.
I am happy to leave. The thought of new horizons excited me. I have a love-hate relationship with my hometown-it taught me to fear before it taught me anything else. The fear kept everyone in the village alive as we worked in the thick of the winters, digging underneath the bottom of the mountains, clearing foliage to uncover fresh dirt and the herbs that we put into our tea to cure our illness. The doctor comes only once every six summers and even then, visits are sporadic and only able to be afforded by those who can pay for the privilege.
I have this trust in the calm waters, and in this vast sea that cradles our barebone boat. It won't swallow me, I tell myself even as I know the stories I've heard, of giant ships rammed into icebergs and broken into smithereens, of men drowned never to resurface, of sirens with razor- like teeth luring men away and of bones, clearly human, washed ashore.
The last story is clearly a tale told to keep the children away from the rising water levels during monsoon but my idle mind has latched onto the images conjured by my bored mind. I kneel on the edge of the boat and look down, trailing my gaze over the surface of the still water.
I stare until I see something dark and agile move strongly against the currents. Eyes, as dark as midnight stare up at me and I gasp. I jerk back afraid. I clench my eyes shut and tell myself it's all in my head. The stories I've been told to fear the sea are about monsters that others do not see and because in my world there is so much to fear, I'd rather not agitate myself over the prospect of something I didn’t spot clearly.
Seconds later, the boat rocks almost unbending us from the bowels of the boat, and I clutch to the side of the boat trying to get my balance back.
The sailor pushes our boat against the currents towards the large ship hurtling towards us. An alarmed murmur spreads through the people in the boat. As the ship nears threateningly, the captain's eyes are fixed on me- it's the man with the paddle. Since he does the most work of pushing the boat through, by all accounts he's the captain. He also keeps us calm.
''Jump!'' he screams at me in Syrian; his voice is harsh and gravelly, aimed not just at me but the other two children in the boat too. ''They'll pull you up! They won't let children drown. This is our only chance.''
My heart beats a tattoo of fear in my ribcage, and terror makes me go still as I look at him again. I don't move. There were other ships that came throughout the days as we journeyed on sea and despite our pleadings lent us a deaf ear. We are not welcome in their pristine countries with all our baggage and emotional damage. We have survived things that should have killed us, and carry guilt of surviving in our hearts.
What if the life jacket I'm wearing deflates? Not all of them are safe, as I found out a few days ago when we tried the same tactic with another child. The waves pulled him under and nobody stopped his father as he reached for his sun, but he was too late.
When I don't move, his mouth curls in disdain; he scowls down at me. He grabs me by the front of the life-jacket and hauls me closer to the edge. He ignores the screaming of my mother and the frightened noises I make in the back of my throat.
Before he heaves me over the edge his eyes bore into me, willing me to understand.
I understand nothing, I want to scream at him.
''This is the only way.'' His tear-filled eyes soften and he begs my forgiveness. Then he drags me up and throws me at the mercy of the ocean.
A wave puts me under instantly and for a moment I feel the weight of the water over my head as I claw my way up to air above me. Blessedly the life jacket pulls me up and I float on the surface.
I look around me at the boat where my mother weeps in her fists, her lips still moving in prayers. I cannot swim, but I still try to swim towards the boat, but the currents are all wrong and any progress I make turns futile as the currents work against me.
''Mama!'' I scream, but the boat flows farther and farther away.
Something wraps around my ankle and pulls me under again. The flimsy, old life jacket is no help as I go under. I meet the creatures’ eyes and forget to breathe.
She is otherworldly with fins covering her lower half and back and she moves effortlessly against the currents. Her eyes gleam like dark jewels; her hair is in a halo around her as she looks at me with sorrow. She opens her mouth and I chock back a scream. Her mouth is full of razor-sharp teeth meant to tear flesh from bone. Her long nails moves towards my face, and it's then that fear propels me into motion.
I scream; precious air escapes my lungs as I fight against the weight of the water for air. I duck as she swims past my head and I heave myself up, breaking the surface of the water. I shudder, teeth chattering as I look around me, frightened. Will she pull me under again and make a meal out of me? Is this how I die?
I don't have to ponder long as I hear shouts above me and rope flies over my head. I look up and see them: men and women shouting on the giant ship staring down at me, their faces slack with shock. A man takes off his jacket and then jumps into the water beside me. He pushes me towards the landing that awaits and towards the ship.
For a moment I fight against his arms for a moment, thinking of mother. How can she leave me? How will I live without her? The boat has grown small and it's hard to see the people on the boat.
My mother knew they wouldn't take her with them. I remember the sailor’s words as he whispered with teary eyes. Was this really the only way? Sadness envelops me, numbing me more than the cold.
My teeth chatter as they haul me on the top of the ship and put a dry towel around me, I look up at my saviors with renewed hope, trying to speak one last time.
'’There is a monster in the water. Please, listen to me! My mother is on that boat. We need to pick her up. She needs help.’’
They talk among themselves mutedly. I don't see my mother's boat anywhere. Instead abandoned life-jackets float over the surface of the sea. I don't sea the other two children with me either.
''She's in shock... Their boat went under...only survivor.''
A woman speaks reassuring words at me in her foreign tongue. I do not understand what she says, but the grim line of her mouth is answer enough: they aren't going to pull my mother up. They aren't going to save her. Tears fill my eyes but they refuse to fall.
When we embark over dry land, I look behind me one last time to the horizon where a ship sails. Beyond the murky depths, I hear a splash and a long tail flips in the water. I huddle in the towel and hope the remainder of the journey will be easier. I hope they will find my mother.
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