“If you’re going to throw up, do it in the corner. There’s a bucket over there.”
Ashanti puts hands on her hips. “Aunt Kandie, you say that because you don’t think I can hold it in!”
“Sorry child. It’s the ship swaying. Don’t you think it’s getting worse?”
“Of course it’s swaying! That’s what boats do!” Aunt Kandie – first name Egla – is sweating. “Silly Aunty,” Ashanti says under her breath, as she runs to the back end of the ship.
The Bambara are huddled here. The old men are leaning against the wall, scratching at the metal as though they are farming it. Ashanti likes their hats, the big wraps of cloth that cover their foreheads almost to their eyebrows. Why would you want to cover your eyebrows, she feels like asking them. They look at her as she stares at them, this little child with her hands on her hips, daring them to speak to her, these old men with their hats and their endless scratching at the hull.
“Well. Who wants some millet?”
The old men don’t answer. But a boy gets up and walks over to Ashanti. “Where did you get that?”
“Aunt Kandie wrapped a sack around her midsection and carried it on under her dress. She says it’s like money where we are going, enough to pay for a taxi and breakfast.”
“That is not true,” returns Femi. “In Italy, they don’t eat breakfast.”
“I suppose they don’t have taxis either, huh?” asks Ashanti. She holds out the millet. “Well, do you want some for your elders? It only costs a kiss. Come on now, let’s have it.”
Femi, Ashanti often tells him, is adored by God, because that is what his name means. Adored he might be, but kissing he does not like. He squeezes his lips and widens his eyes, and lays a dry kiss on Ashanti’s cheek. Behind him, the elders have turned away. One is throwing up, and not into a bucket. The smell overcomes Ashanti for a moment, and strangely it makes her want to have a real kiss, not the fake ones that Femi has been delivering to her over the last three weeks. She withholds the millet until he puts his lips on hers. She tries to suck him inwards, but he is a big boy.
Ashanti takes the rest of the millet to Mbali and Baby; Mbali who is named after an unknown flower and Baby who is named after an unknown name. Mbali insists that she will not give Baby a name until they touch Italian soils, and that she will not have a second Baby until she meets a nice Italian man who can make her big all the time.
“Sit down,” says Mbali, gladly taking some of the millet from Ashanti’s pouch. “How is Aunty? Still praying to God for salvation against the waves? Better to pray for a good fuck when she reaches Italy.”
“Mbali! That is rude,” says Ashanti, blushing. She vaguely knows what a fuck is, but the concept of a good fuck has entirely eluded her. “Aunty is still a bit sick. She does not look well.”
Mbali shrugs as she pinces the millet between her fingers and drops it into Baby’s mouth. “Do you want to sleep with us tonight? It smells better over here.”
Ashanti nods and huddles next to her. She is very close to one of Mbali’s astonishing breasts. She can feel Baby eating, and Mbali breathing. Tonight, the ship is not rocking too badly, she thinks as she begins her fall into sleep. She wants to tell Mbali about the kiss she got from Femi – the really good kissing – because Mbali kept telling her that she wouldn’t get one. Humph, thinks Ashanti – she only said that because she didn’t think Ashanti could do it. Lot she knows! says Ashanti to the nothing, as the waves become her everlasting everything.
“It’s not supposed to be wet in a boat!” cries Ashanti, rising. But there is water on her face, sickly salty in the way that her sweat tastes. The boat’s engine is whirring loudly, and then there is a clank and it stops with a boom.
There is a half a foot of water in the bottom of the boat. Mbali is awake. “Shanti, go get your Aunt!”
People are moving everywhere, heading for the ladders. But the hatches are locked. “Not yet,” says Ashanti to Mbali, darting away. The water is warmer than she expected, and she fancies here and there that there is a fish swimming alongside her ankles, showing her the way. “Femi!” she calls. The elders are standing as though they’ve been sprouted by the new water, white-wrapped beanstalks that are pressed against a rusted metal sky. “Hi Femi – where’s your cutter?”
“The boat’s sinking!” cries the boy.
Ashanti almost feels like telling him that at least he was kissed by a girl first. She laughs. “I’m sorry! Your elders have the cutters, right? The ones they brought in case the smugglers ask for more money before they let us out. I think we need them now!”
“They’ll open the hatches!”
“No Femi. The smugglers have probably left now. Get me the cutters please. I promise not to kiss you again if you do!”
His brown brown eyes are wide open. Femi might be twelve, but he is very short for his age. What Ashanti likes about him is his colour – he is not exactly brown, but more of a polished black as though the God that adores him so much basted his skin in starlight before sending him out of his mother.
Femi vanishes, and a moment later he is back with the cutters. “Come on,” she tells him, but he shakes his head and stands with the elders, who are twisting and gnarling with the agitation of the boat.
Ashanti runs. Everyone is crowded at the ladders, but she has a loud voice. One Liberian man – one of her own tribe, and a Christian too – tries to snatch the cutters away, but she bonks him in the nose. He sprays blood; she rushes to the ladder and barks at the chain of people. The cutters rise, hand upon hand up the ladder until the topmost person is chewing at the metal locks. The hatch opens – and Ashanti has the God-given mercy to see the sky for the first time in three weeks, through a hole about three feet square. It is a dark starry sky, not at all the storm-ridden pall that she had expected.
Back at the side of the boat, Mbali’s knees are underwater. Baby is crying very loudly. “Come on,” says Ashani, pulling them to the ladder. People are streaming up, two or three at a time. Ashanti pushes her way through and bats them away from the rungs. “We are not sinking that fast!” she bellows. For a moment, everyone stops. They stare at her, this fourteen year old girl who has her arms in the air, fingers curled into little brown fists.
“Women and children first. Oh yes, girls too.” It is mostly Liberians that she is talking too, her own people. She spouts some verse, a psalm or two that she knows she has butchered. Meanwhile, Mbali is climbing the ladder with Baby, and is soon out the hatch. The water is two feet deep now.
“Aunt Kandie!” cries Ashanti, when she finds her. She is still sitting in the water, the only one left who is doing so. Ashanti hauls her up.
“I was dreaming of my canoe,” she says, coughing. “Are we in my canoe?”
“Oh Aunty, this is no canoe. It’s a boat. But not a good one. Come along now.”
At the ladders, there are only Bambaras now, as though they have purposefully decided to leave last. The elders are huddled together, none of them comfortable in the water that reaches their waist. The women are going first.
“I’m not following Muslims,” says Aunt Kandie, although Ashanti does not believe she means it like that. The Bambaras allow them through, and Aunt Kandie climbs the ladder despite her protest. Ashanti watches her go. Then the Bambaras continue their departure.
“You go first,” says Femi, after the elders have left. The water is up to his chest. His teeth are chattering.
“You are just saying that because you don’t think I can be the last to leave!” returns Ashanti, the very thought that she could be the last to leave at the forefront of her mind, as though this is something that she can write in a letter to her family on the Pepper Coast – something they can read with pride as they laze on their rope manjas under the plantain trees. Oh – and there a plantain falls on the letter, she thinks, and her family laughs. And they marvel at her Italian, and her clothes that they see in the photos, and her promises that she is going to bring them to Italy one day.
“You owe me for the kiss,” says Femi. Ashanti shivers and laughs, and climbs. The hatch is three feet square! The world beyond has not changed, just stars and the clear sky, and around it the frothing sea. Ashanti emerges – inshallah inshallah she murmurs, over and over again. It is something she heard the Bambaras say. Then the surface on which she stands falls as the boat loses its perch on whatever rock tore it apart. Water fills up to the hatch, and Femi is lost in the darkness.
Ashanti flips herself into the coldness of the hatch, eyes open and stinging, hands outstretched in the water. The silly boy, she thinks, simply cannot swim – a strange skill to not bother with when channeling across the ocean. Inshallah inshallah, she says, glimpsing for a moment what that might mean – and then she feels a hand and grasps it hard, pulls on it until it comes free of the sucking force of the water. Femi flops onto the deck and coughs liquid.
“I should have gone first,” he says, after he spits the water out of him.
“You owe me a good fucking,” she returns, fairly certain that this is the appropriate time to use that phrase. He looks bewildered, but she attributes that to the near-drowning. “Come, they’re on the rocks over there.”
The boat is jammed on a shoal, the attachment firm enough to rip her open but not enough, necessarily, to keep her for long. The waves are seeing to that, rocking her back and forth as they attempt to take her back. Ashanti and Femi reach the stuck end and jump to the rocks, skinning themselves in the process. Not a few moments later, the boat remembers its purpose and spits back the rocks in favour of the waves. At first, it looks as though it might still float, even though the deck is under water. But then there is a big sigh of spray, and it simply turns onto its side as though going to bed, but this pillow is very wet and quite deep and beckons the ship downwards to a far darker resting place.
The sea, Ashanti notes, is getting heavier and colder. A wind is blowing, as though the storm that she had expected to see is now going to come along. In the distance, stars are being swallowed up by clouds inky deep.
The rock is very sharp and just big enough to hold everyone. Of the smugglers there is no sign, and Ashanti spends just one moment scanning the sea for them. But they are gone. The people are arranged in two sides, the Bambaras on one, the Liberians on the other. They are staring at each other, but more than that, they are staring at the three or four lifeboats that bob on the sea, not far from the rock. There are not enough boats for everyone.
One of the Liberians is yelling at the Bambaras and pointing. The Muslim elders are remarkably silent, as though freed from the boat they are growing again, fed by starlight and salt spray. Femi is suddenly in front of them, translating what the elder behind him is saying. They are pointing at the boats. They are always pointing at the boats. And then three of the Bambara women are leaping into the water, swimming towards those boats, each hitting the water at the same time, each descending under the waves and emerging at the same moment. They look like mermaids, thinks Ashanti, naked creatures coursing over the water without any fear for what these depths might hold. They emerge – as one – onto the boats, their long hair stuck to their bodies. Then they are rowing the boats closer to the rocks.
The Bambaras begin to move to the water’s edge. The Liberians mill about uncertainly at the far side.
Femi races to Ashanti. “They’re taking the boats! The men don’t swim! Boys neither!”
“Women and children first,” says Ashanti, knowing that she has heard this before. It might have been her brother, laughing as he pulled up his siblings onto the raft he’d made from branches and vines. Or it might have been a movie, black and white on the grainy cracked screen late at night as the men sang outside and the women beckoned them to bed.
The Bambaras are getting onto the boats. When the first ones board, the Liberians finally move. A few of the men lead Mbali and Baby to the rocky edge, pointing frantically at the baby and then at the moiling sea. One of the elders shakes his head. The Bambaras continue to board.
“Can’t you convince them?” barks Ashanti.
“No way,” says Femi. “They’re a bunch of fucking idiots, Shanti!”
The Liberians have reached the Bambaras. The elder is still shaking his head. Baby is screaming. The Liberians are very angry now, voices rising. Inshallah inshallah thinks Ashanti, as the elder finally takes Baby in the little straw basket. Liberian hands reach out in thanks, but the elder is spinning spinning, as though he of a sudden is the storm. He is spinning and Ashanti is screaming, and Femi is racing back, his hands waving for the elder to stop. Mbali lunges forward to grab the basket, but it is far too late. The basket flies through the air, into the sea.
Two of the other elders clasp Mbali, who is clawing at them, and dash her body at the rocks. Her heads hits and she does not move after that. The Liberian men rush forward, and for a moment there is a fight, but it does not last long. The lifeboats are filling – a long line of white-capped men is boarding in a straight seamless line, as though this is nothing more than a ceremony, a procession that has been planned all along.
But Ashanti? Ashanti is in the water. This is cold, she thinks to herself. This is what cold is made of. There is no bottom to this thing, and no boat to raise her up. She is just a girl, a bit of skin let loose in the world in an improbable course towards the Italian cost, where she was so sure that she would bathe herself on the sand and write letters to her family. There is a type of coffee that the Italians drink – she forgets the name – that she will learn to make. And pizza! Yes, she will make pizza and pasta. And she will lay with Italian men, who look like oil and smell like fish.
Ashanti swims towards the basket in the waves. It is floating away from the rock with the waves, and she thinks that she can hear Baby’s crying over the ocean’s noise. For one moment, she looks back and sees Aunt Kandie – first name Egla – on the edge of the rock, screaming at her to come back. Ashanti cannot hear her. Then a larger wave rears up and strikes the rock, spraying a torrent of water over the edge. Aunt Kandie disappears in the eruption.
The water is frothing now. Wind is blowing hard. Ashanti pushes forward, losing sight of the basket with every wave. She fancies that she can see the lights of the boat beneath her, each one winking out in turn as the water savages them. The bottom, she thinks, is really not that far away. She swims and swims, following the wind-riven waves, and when she finally reaches the basket, she is comforted by Baby’s crying.
“Hold on,” she says, treading water. Her breath is hoarse, skin frozen. Behind her at the rock, one of the lifeboats has pulled away. The others are nearly full. At the edge of the rock, waving madly, is a little form – she thinks it is Femi. He has stayed on the rock with the Liberians and is calling to her. She can almost make out what he is saying.
The waves rise with the wind. She will have to swim against them back to the rock. That is the way it works, she thinks. “I am sorry for your mother,” she says to Baby, teeth chattering. “She will never give you an Italian father now. But that’s okay. Italy is very warm, you will know it. Do you see that rock? Not so far away.” A wave lifts her up and surges over her head – she holds the basket up as high as she can. “Come, let’s swim.” And Ashanti bends herself to the effort, one hand on the basket, the other pushing against the waves. She knows that they are watching her, those on the rock and those in the lifeboats. She wonders what they think – whether they believe she can make it. Humph! she says to herself, amazed to think that anyone could believe she won’t.