The Boat by Elaine Chiew

The Boat

No one sees the first ones swim ashore, their arms with powerful skips ploughing the ocean surface. No one sees the flailing arms of the woman holding the child, sinking below the surface. No one sends lifeguards or rescue detail. No one sees others jump from the boat, in droves, in singles, holding hands, mounted on each other, jumping and disappearing from view. No one sees all the bobbing heads, like black fruit against a caul of blue morning.

Dawn is breaking, a pale sliver of moon still visible in a rapidly-lightening sky. The boat’s anchor creaks. The boat had been at sea for three and a half months. Wind combs the water in gusts, a swishing and pulling ashore of bodies bloated with cherished dreams and ambitions that is a collective puff of unalloyed desire rising like a cloud. There is the sound of lapping waves. The cries of an early morning gull, banking against the shriek of the wind. There is the shred of the wind, the rustle of grass, the bark of a far-off dog, the clanking of anchor, the soft sighs of arms pulling water.

Ghostly, from the breakaways, the figures emerge. They emerge in waves. First one, then five, then ten. Twenty. Forty. The men first. The best and strongest swimmers. In black clothing, to camouflage themselves, their bodies limp, sopping with wet. The women in the next wave, with children slung across their necks. They emerge and collapse on the deserted beach. One of the pioneering men falls onto his knees. He buries his face in the sand. He kisses it, over and over. The others watch. Some fall.

But then, the piercing shriek of an official whistle. Could be a lifeguard whistle. Could be worse. Others have been watching but not seeing. They’ve been lying in wait. It is so sudden it does not belong. It is so foreign that for the beat of a metaphysical breath, no one on the beach hears it. The marram grass does not register it. The sound does not carry over the waves. The dunes do not reflect its echo. The gull is not disturbed, it wheels in circular motions looking for prey. The figures do not stop. They do not break into a run. They push, foot before foot, tired and weary, up onto the sand dunes, still carrying their young.

 

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Elaine Chiew is a London-based writer, and her fiction has appeared in numerous publications and journals, including, most recently, JMWW, The Squalor Review and The Ilanot Review. She is the editor and organizer of Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World (New Internationalist 2015).

 

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