Everyone is asleep, or too sick to do anything but lie on the deck. I crawl out from under my mother’s arm and creep through the bodies to the front of the boat. I am looking for Baba. He left us to go talk to the Captain and never came back. That was two nights ago. When I ask Mama where he is, she just cries and rocks the baby. The baby sleeps all the time. Mama has wrapped the rosary that Grandma gave us around the baby’s neck. He likes grabbing at the shiny pearls with his little hands, but he hasn’t done that in a while.
The sea is inky and smooth. The moonlight on the black water is like a road leading straight up to heaven. I find a spot to sit between two barrels. The moon looks like a big wheel of cheese hanging in the dark sky. My mouth waters at the thought of creamy goat’s cheese. The boat isn’t moving forward. We are just bobbing gently in the same place. I can’t hear the engine. It’s been silent since before Baba went to speak to the Captain. I’m very thirsty. I dip my hand into the barrels, but all I can feel is empty space. What will we do if there is no more water? Where is Baba? Where are the sailors and the Captain? Maybe they all went for help. Maybe that’s why we’re not moving? So that they’ll know where to find us when they come back?
I get up on my toes and stick my head into a barrel, holding on to the rough plastic edges so that I don’t fall in. For one joyful moment I think that I smell fresh water, but it’s just my mind playing tricks. The barrels are empty. All at once my thirst rages as if there were a lion in my throat; as if knowing that there is no more water unleashed it. I lick the cold iron of the boat’s side and work up some spit in my mouth. I swallow it, pretending that I’m drinking ice cold lemonade in Liberty Square. Baba always buys me one before we go to the park. On the way back home, we sometimes stop to light a candle at the church of Michael the Archangel. Grandma says that we all have a guardian angel who watches over us.
I lie down between the barrels and try to be brave. I tell myself that this is an adventure, and that I am the girl who will be saved by her Baba and the valiant Captain, guided by her guardian angel. I pull Baba’s big, puffy jacket around me and close my eyes, letting the tale of the girl who was saved run through my head like a television show. I doze, dreaming of a long straw sticking out of a bucket of ice cold lemonade.
Something hard is jabbing my hip. I unzip the pocket of the jacket and my heart leaps as my fingers recognise the shape of a plastic Diet Coke bottle. Then, just as quickly, my heart sinks as I remember my Grandma giving it to Baba with the rosary. It’s special Holy water, from the Virgin Mary’s house in Turkey. You can’t drink Holy Water.
I look up at the night sky and try to imagine our Holy Mother floating on the wispy cloud that is passing across the moon. Surely she would understand if I drank her water? If I prayed while I drank it, it might not be a sin. I could offer it up. Drinking the Holy Water might make the prayer more powerful. I say three Hail Marys, and one Our Father for good measure. My hands are shaking as I uncap the bottle. I ask our Holy Mother to send my guardian angel to come and rescue us. I want to save some for Mamma and the baby, but once I start drinking I can’t stop until the very last drop. I ask for forgiveness for my greed. Then I close my eyes and start a decade of the rosary, counting on my fingers.
I wake up to a humming in my head. At first I think it must be the engine. Baba has come back! Looking up, I get such a fright that I tumble backwards onto the deck, legs and arms caught up in the jacket.
A giant, white ship is floating by, lights blazing. It is the biggest, whitest, shiniest thing I have ever seen. It is bigger than the biggest building on our street in Aleppo. It is lit up like a football stadium. I can see rows of little windows, some with shadows moving behind the drawn curtains. There are two rows of balconies above the windows. I see a man sitting on a chair. I can see the red glow of his cigarette.
I should run and wake the others, but I can’t move. Suddenly a door slides open and a woman runs out onto the top deck. She is beautiful, like a film star. She has long blonde hair that spills over her shoulders. They are so white that they seem to shine. Her dress is gold and sparkles. I imagine that she has red lipstick and long painted nails as she pulls a cigarette from her purse and tries to light it. Then she throws the cigarette, her lighter and her purse overboard.
The woman’s long hair sways below the railing as she leans over and hangs her head. Then she straightens up and starts walking to the back of the ship. The boat is slowly passing, but she stays in front of me as she walks along the deck. She stops and bends down to take off her heels and carries on barefoot.
Our boat starts to rock, as the ship’s waves roll in to meet us. I can hear shouting behind me. Any minute now someone will see us. Someone will hear us. The ship keeps moving forward. Soon it will be too far to hail. The woman reaches the back of the ship and looks out over the road of moonlight, floating in the ship’s wake.
I can hear them screaming on the lower deck. I look down and see a crowd of little lights being waved; lighters, torches, mobile phones. The woman takes no notice of the shouting. She stands very still, her outstretched arms holding the railings. The ship is passing by. The boat rocks violently as the giant wake hits us. I get on my knees and clasp my hands in front of my face. A wave lifts the boat and I get a good look at the woman, standing at the back of the ship as it pulls away. I see her raise her chin and closes her eyes. I raise my chin and close my eyes.
When I open my eyes again, she is standing on the railing. I watch as she raises her arms, casting wing shadows on the deck as she dives off. For a moment she is suspended in the graceful arc of her flight across the moon. She plunges into the water with barely a splash.
I do not notice the people running up the deck. I do not hear the siren going off. I am searching the water for my guardian angel, waiting for her golden head to pop out of the water and rescue me.
Tina Pisco 2015