The sea is still, but the tarpaulin above the fishing boat moves as though touched by wind. Victim to curiosity, I stop scanning the cove for scraps and focus on the boat. Could be a harmless stray, savoring the stash of an unlucky sailor. Could be an armed man. I check for witnesses in the dusk and, seeing none, I rush down the jetty. Survival means taking risks.
The tarpaulin is blue, my hand unwashed, and the eyes that catch me when I lift the canvas are scared and bloodshot. Hiding in the boat is a girl my own age, eighteen at most, but already looking like death. Her smile, for all its good intentions, is chilling.
I feel the urge to take off. Meeting strangers is low on my list of priorities, even when the danger isn’t glaring. But a flash of recognition makes me stay.
Please, the stranger says, crawl in or leave.
Her voice is weak like watercolors. For no good reason, I crawl in.
It’s dark and warm underneath the tarpaulin — limbs touching and gathered breath. The ammonia stink of leftover fish makes me imagine the sky as a faraway possibility.
The girl and I exchange glances and no names. I’m unsure what’s expected of me. My eyes adjust to the gloom. Are you hungry? I ask.
I’ve never shared my food before, not since I’m on my own that is, and I’m unconvinced I should become Miss Generosity now — but look, my hand is opening my pouch and I’m offering the stowaway a fist of bread.
While the girl eats, I examine her realm. There’s a mattress of fishing nets, a contraption collecting rainwater in a jar, a pee bottle. Survival means being creative.
I have a shack, I say – am I really saying that? Usually, I practice the art of not giving a damn. You can come stay with me for a while, I tell her, but don’t steal. I’ll kick your ass if you do.
I grimace at my own forged grit.
She shakes her head and says, No, too risky. I’d get you in trouble.
So the girl is hunted. What has she done? Does it matter?
We whisper in the dark, getting closer to each other, testing trust.
I find myself wondering who will pull me up if I ever hit bottom. I ask her what she’s going to do.
The stowaway peers inward, as if shriveled, her soul withdrawn. She is stuck in a hopeless limbo. Can count on nothing because she doesn’t count. Is not even a person. She says, I’m wanted only when dead.
I leave and return, always at night, bringing fruit and company. Despite our various wounds, we laugh at the nauseating anger we share over the disaster that is our world. The poisoned earth, the men, the men, our human future burning. I make every effort to be kind, for kindness on this planet is as rare as oxygen in outer space. But the days go by uneventfully until I realize — rain tapping on the tarpaulin like a blind creature trying to see — that I must be the hope.
I step up to the task, ignoring the fact that I’ve never been brave. This girl is not a rumor. She’s real. She’s anguish right in my face. I look at her, her youth and possibilities, and feel the fist of the present close.
We make a plan. We plan a route. We pulse with power.
Freethinking our lives together, we are sisters in misery.
On the night she will cross the border at a spot I’ve heard vigilance to be low, I bring enough provisions to survive a three-day journey. I even donate my parents’ pouch, the last of my possessions that ever touched their hands.
We set off under cover of darkness, dressed in black, thick clouds obscuring the moon. We advance side by side toward the fence, alert and confident. But before we reach our destination, the beam of a sweeping searchlight hits our heads. Shots follow — no warning, nothing.
We run, we zigzag, we duck, bullets flying past. But none of the directions we take lead us home. Our bodies are no match for machines.
One of us is hit in the back and falls, and the other, which happens to be me, sinks on her knees beside her. The proximity of loss is choking. I cradle her head in my lap and imagine she can still hear me when I tell her to hold on to her blood — she’s going to need every drop of it in the New World.
She smiles, and I have a purpose again. I’m a girl with a purpose surrounded by chance. When I close my sister’s eyes and await my arrest, I pledge to save the next.
Claire Polders is a Dutch author. Her debut in English, A Whale in Paris (Atheneum/Simon&Schuster), is a novel for younger readers about a heroic girl who saves a lost whale during World War II. It was released in May 2018. Her short work appeared in TriQuarterly, Denver Quarterly, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other lit mags that may not be quarterlies. Read more of her work online at www.clairepolders.com or follow her @clairepolders.
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