Salty wind danced spirals over the rippling ocean, picking up shards of sea mist, shifting clouds and flickering through the dirty hair of the Boat People. The sun was at 12 in the sky. It was not a soft brightness, but a burning heat that pierced the crumbling wood of the boat and branded blisters on the skin of the huddled figures. The boat giving no shade. They sat hunched against its rays, skeletal shoulders bearing the brunt of its heat. Flimsy rags draped their bodies, offering nothing but scraps of dignity. The people on the boat were chaos to the eye; packed like sardines, they almost spilled from the boat and toppled into the ocean. A girl crouched by her older brother, hidden almost entirely in the crowd. She was tiny and thin, with little arms cradling her knobbly knees. Her crusty, chocolate brown eyes staring at her mother, who leant limp against the other side of the boat, clutching her youngest child in her arms. Her cracked lips sucking shallow breaths. The girl absorbed every detail of the woman who sacrificed everything to pile onto this vessel and be pushed out onto the water.
Their mother had promised that this was their only hope. It was a journey, an escape, a future. They had had nothing to lose; being a small, broken family with no food and poor shelter. They were survivors who escaped battle and bloodshed, in constant fear of death, leaving behind all that they knew. They did not know where they were going or what it would be like. It was an unknown that burned in their minds. The girl watched her mother weaken with the sinking and rising of the sun. She knew her mother was ill and the hope was fading. Would she make it, if they made it at all? Her brother held a stern silence, but she knew the fear in his chest. Barely a word was murmured throughout the boat. There was a stillness, a timelessness; a sense of eternity.
Clouds crept in from the horizon, rumbling as the sun dipped into distant water. The air held a chill and the water beneath the planks of the boat churned aggressively. The greyness of the sky seeped into everything. The people, somehow huddling closer as the boat dipped into the rippling waves, shared the tension, a single fear. Having sailed in the stillness for the past few nights, they almost expected a churning sea. The girl clung to her brother’s arm and he reached out to hold their mothers hand. The ocean worsened. Wind picked up, whipping and slashing and water buckled and churned. It bit into the sides of the boat, sending a chorus of wet splatters onto the deck. The girl buried her face and got lost in the roaring of the waves. Every now and then a shout or scream would escape a throat as the boat was thrown over the water. The girl spoke softly to herself. Rhythmic chants she had used to sooth herself through the violence. She whispered her mother’s name, her brother’s name, her younger sister’s name, her forgotten father’s name, and her name. She whispered her name over and over again to remind herself she was there, that she was okay. Nari. She focused on her name, and became distanced from the crackling roar or the ocean, the frightened shouts of people. Nari clung to the edge of the boat, felt the coarse, splintery wood in her palms, the icy water seeping into her rugged shirt, her brother’s skin against her arm. It didn’t feel real to her. Time had lost any value. Nari didn’t know how long it went for; the rocking, the crashing, the shouts and cries. Had she fallen asleep? Or withdrawn into some kind of dream state? Whatever it was, it allowed her to make it through the stormy night.
Nari awoke to shouting, the sound of argument and distress. Her brother’s voice among them- he was angered. She shifted, lifting her head and peering out of her lashes into the blinding morning light. The ocean was shimmering. Bodies were sprawled, bruised and battered. Nari sat up suddenly, her head spinning, she looked about frantically for her mother. She saw her brother, cradling their younger sister in his arms but leaning aggressively towards an older man, who held their mother by the scruff of her blouse. “Mumma!” she cried, shrill and hoarse. Nari stumbled to her feet and pushed past the gawking onlookers towards the end of the boat. Her feet suddenly plunged into water and she gasped, lifting her leg. The back end of the boat had filled with water; she hadn’t noticed the boat was skewed. It had been damaged in the storm and gazing around she noticed that many people had been lost. The remainder were clinging to the front of the boat, but the weak and injured were lying scattered, half in the water on the submerged wood. Her mother lay amongst them. She hurried forward and the planks of wood shifted under her weight. She cried in fear, her arm outstretched towards her brother but jerked still as the man turned sharply towards her, shouting with force, “Get back you stupid girl!” “Mumma!” she cried again.
Nari saw her mother stir, her neck bent against the grip of the man with blouse. The man ignored her, proceeding to shout towards her brother. “Back off, child! We don’t have time for this! The weak ones need to go, they won’t make it anyway! It’s a matter of our survival.” Her brother appeared as fierce as she had ever seen him. “Let go of my mother!” He yelled but his voice broke. He started to make a move towards her but the man snapped his grip, jerking their mother who let out a startled groan. Another woman, older than their mother, cried out suddenly, “Stop that!” There was a pause as attention turned towards her. “We must all survive- and if this ship goes down, we all go down with it! There will be no sacrifices!” The man shot a cold look her way, “And this entire ship will sink very soon with everyone on it if we don’t get rid of some of this dead weight!” The man shoved their mother further down the boat and with a cry she caught herself on the edge of the sinking wood, water lapping at her shoulders as she lay crumpled on her side. “Mumma!” Nari cried. The man grabbed another man by his armpits, his bony arms dangling and feet dragging down the deck as he was pulled towards the end of the boat. People shifted, some to avoid the conflict and some to reach out and help, when suddenly there was a cry from the head of the boat. A cry that sounded like nothing they had heard for many suns. It made everyone pause, as if the breath had been swept from their lungs.
“I see land!”
The voice was shrill and seemed so loud that it resonated in the ears of every person on the boat. Land. The word was land. Something was lifted within everyone, a kind of energy. They scrambled to the front of the boat to look. The man let go of the dead weight he was dragging, and he dropped limp onto the deck. Nari ran to her mother, her brother kneeling over her trying to prop her upright. Her mother blinked up at them, barely gripping Nari’s arm. Nari beagn to cry. “Mother are you alright?” the brother said softly.
“Mumma! They found land, they found land!” Nari cried. Her mother sat up, her eyes wide.
“Land?” the word floated from her lips, a soft exhale of disbelief. Nari nodded furiously, there were cheers from the front of the boat. Tears welled in her eyes and she pulled her children into her arms. “Land! Oh, they found land!”
They sat hunched together in the salty water. Holding each other, crying, laughing; full of hope. They had found hope again.