My own blood weeps in my veins. I feel it flow like a long, slow reptilian rain, from its bitter source, my heart—open upstream, closed downstream. My blood forgets itself, wandering the branches of my veins, through my limbs and to my limits.
Jacques Stephen Alexis
I am alone and my skin falls from me. My teeth dislodge themselves, one after the other. This traitorous disease—I do not know its name—has unfurled itself over my miserable existence for more than a week. There’s not a single soul left—none of the three hundred other Africans who departed the Mauritanian coast bound for the Canaries. An endless journey: First on foot, from the Malian border, then by bus to Nouadhibou. Desert, plague, thirst, hunger, filth, and the price already so high to begin with. Countless dead. Absurd heat, no water, abuse.
Most of all, the abuse.
For all of us—men, women, and children—it was the same: Swindled, bought, abandoned, raped, beaten; treated as less than animals on a slow crossing, all the more terrible for the ruthless cruelty of those assigned to guide us.
The arrival at the beach wasn’t any better. The spacious boat we had been promised transformed before our disbelieving eyes into a rickety cayuco, less than thirty feet long; a fragile construction, rusted even in the places it wasn’t metal, patched all over and badly caulked, as though by a third-rate handyman. The payment in dollars, inflated astronomically, wound up in the pockets of Ignacio and Mohamed, unscrupulous Tunisians, two of the many mob bosses trafficking black bodies from the African continent to every European port, from Athens to the Spanish isles.
The sea is still rageful, even though the gale has passed. That terrible storm from a few days ago that made off with almost everything living. Huddled, grasping figures slipping into the dark sea tossing around the boat like a furious beast, howling in unison with all of us. That was when we lost the captain, or rather the son of a bitch Moroccan who pretended to maneuver this foul little boat, this putrid, creaking phantom cowering before the misery of a furious, endless expanse.
To hell with him.
That wasn’t a loss.
It was just a short while ago that I threw the last of the children into the water; Tijan, his grandmother told me he was called, before she died of the cold two days ago, having miraculously survived the storm that turned the sea around us into a kind of frozen shadow, patrolled by cadavers and sharks. Her name was Angèle, and what got her in the end were two things—hypothermia, and sadness knowing the boy would soon die.
She also knew, with cold clarity, that her presence on that boat was foolish. A stupid, poor old lady with no future, no matter where the cayuco eventually landed. But the boy didn’t have anyone else. His family had been buried under the rubble of civil war in Puntland, at the very tip of the horn of Africa. What else could she do? Someone has to try to save him, she told me, before giving the boy a final kiss on the forehead and letting her eyes close.
He lasted a little longer—as long as his hope held out, no more, no less. Tijan was maybe twelve. It didn’t matter in the end; he went with her, wherever it was she had gone.
By my count, it’s thirty-some days that we’ve been adrift out here.
That I’ve been adrift out here.
Thirty days is what the noxious Moroccan said, before he was devoured by the great mouth of the greedy sea that prefers African flesh.
My name is Faris Abu, if that means anything to anyone. Just one more of the countless Faris Abus from all over Africa. I’m Egyptian, but I doubt that’s of much importance either, because I could just as easily be Ethiopian or Eritrean. Senegalese. Syrian. Sudanese. Somali.
As I said, there’s no one left.
Just the map and me.
The map: I look at the heavily creased scrap of paper I sketched hastily before we boarded. It’s starting to go to pieces, same as this whole trip—its people and their hope. No, that’s not right. I no longer have hope.
It would do me no good.
The map: I made it as best I could in total darkness, copying a damp, stained sheet I had lifted from one of the oafs guarding us, in that shed where no one slept but everyone dreamed. Then they rounded us up like cattle, shoving us with the butts of their rifles, forcing us to board the boat that was supposed to carry us beyond the water, to freedom, to the promised land. Now I know: To hell.
As I said, it wasn’t a big boat, as they had told us when we paid the ominous price demanded in advance. No, it was a filthy, piece of shit Mauritanian canoe with less chance of staying afloat than a fly in a tank full of hungry frogs.
The map? Not this sodden nonsense, where my dull-pencil scribbles are barely legible; a strange geography, fractalized, deformed, hardly distinguishing among a few important landmarks: European ports in the Canary Islands, Lampedusa and Malta, the Iberian and Italian coasts, and some rough approximations parodying high and low tides. That information came to me from Faiza, one of the young Somalis. He was missing fingers. They’d been cut off as punishment for stealing from an army supply truck so that he could feed his children.
The wind sweeps over my wet and trembling fingers, and now it lifts another chunk of map into the salty water. If it were up to the atlas that remains in my hands, only two ports would be left, Lampedusa and Malta. The Canary Islands are no longer an option, that’s the fucking reality. Athens has flown away too, thrown itself into the churning water that surrounds us all. I poke around my mouth and another tooth comes free, this time with a patch of gum attached. My sense of humor goes with them, with the map, with the scabs that flake off every time I scratch my head or underarm.
The truth is I figured it out, more or less, even before we left Nouadhibou—while I was sleeping in that shed, while they were prodding me with their rifles, those Tunisian rats. I knew it when I boarded the cayuco and recognized the stench of death, saw it in each of those black faces, children, women, and men. The first detour should have been enough of a warning to us all, our scramble to avoid one of Frontex’s Operation Triton patrols, prowling the Mediterranean in search of African rafts to sink. I now see how that maneuver sent us too far astray—into the inexorable path of the storm. The goddamn storm that gladly took on the patrol’s mission: Relieving the cayuco of its cargo—sending us to live in the depths with the squid and teeming crabs.
I believe the map, my body, and whatever’s left of my old instinct for hope are the same thing: the residue of an idea that’s gone to shit. I scratch the wooden surface of the tiller and rotten shavings fall away, just like the skin around my skull, and, now, my fingernails too. Organisms dissolving, bodies worth nothing. I am adrift, as I said, in the broadest of senses.
I do still remember better times, when the world dissolved more slowly. The color-filled days of my childhood in Karmooz. Adolfo’s fruit market, tuk tuks zigzagging around pedestrians in the narrow dirt streets of my native Alexandria. Back then, the morning was a sponge absorbing all the sounds of the people, the smells of the street food, the sparkle of the sun on the soft cloth hanging in vendors’ stalls.
But moving past midday, the unyielding heat came on, and time itself begins to disassociate, film overexposed by the afternoon’s blinding horizon.
Here and now the loss is greater.
On one side, the circular sea: bottomless and full of danger; on the other side, my consciousness: just as altered and profaned. Left to be picked apart by the pitiless elements.
I lean my elbow on the tiller. I managed to tie it together to a metal ring, a kind of mooring, in the dirty wooden floor of the cayuco. A ray of sunlight agonizes the surrounding air. Dark clouds fray above me, in the firmament; I see them smudge and knot together, giving birth to fragments of blue sky. If my vision isn’t playing tricks on me, I can make out a distant ribbon of brown that might be dry land. Who knows. Maybe it is. More than thirty days have already passed, according to my count. That makes it possible. I’ve already said it, I know, but there’s nothing else to say.
I lose the rest of the map. I don’t even know where it goes. Maybe it falls into the sea when I try to put my hands in my pockets, or maybe it simply disintegrates. It’s the same thing either way. It was useless.
My mouth hurts.
I lose two more teeth. I throw them overboard. It’s not like there’s anything to eat—they weren’t helping me either.
From far away, I hear the sound of a motor.
It comes from a white shadow quickly moving closer, now less than half a mile from where the cayuco and I float. I squint through the mist, but I can’t make the image take shape. Maybe it’s because I no longer have eyelashes. My eyes themselves are stiff, burned by salt and reflected light. It must be one of the coastal patrols from Lampedusa, or Malta, or the Canaries, or Athens. I don’t know, and I don’t care. The boat gets closer. The noise booms in my ears like a million explosions, frenzied echoes filling my brain with the drone of war. Then, cutting through the sound, the motor rises sharply, and so does the loudspeaker roaring in an unrecognizable tongue—unrecognizable to me, anyway.
I look around. There’s the anchor. It’s not very big, and it wouldn’t help keep the cayuco afloat during another storm; but there’s no storm now, the sea seems to have grown unnaturally calm. As if in anticipation. As if its invisible coldness has begun keeping time with the infinite and eloquent silence inside my head.
I hear the shouts emitted by the loudspeaker, but I don’t understand anything. It’s Italian. The flag rippling over the prow makes that clear. I see it, even though my eyes hurt so much, even though it’s become difficult to swallow saliva without taking the remaining teeth and skin from my lips with it. I am Egyptian, from Karmooz, from the land of Alexandria, land of the majestic library razed by the conqueror, Alexander the Great.
I tie the rope to my foot.
I climb to the edge of the cayuco and I see them, dressed in their neat sailors’ uniforms, going crazy behind the loudspeaker. But it doesn’t really matter to them. They are following protocol. The protocol of the lie, which is the same as diplomacy. They no longer want Africans, they no longer want immigrants. There is no work, the people complain. They scream that the blacks should go back to their countries. I heard it, and I read it a thousand times in the newspapers and bulletins. I must have known it, and I did, I knew it even before starting this ridiculous journey leading nowhere, only to a sea of bodies.
I throw the anchor and it yanks me behind it. I let myself be taken. The cold water calms me, like a salve. The sound of the loudspeaker grows stronger and deeper, as if I’m in a great room of echoes, although it’s already begun to dissolve, to break down, as I advance, or maybe retreat, I don’t know. I’m following the map. My skin is soothed, that I do know, and the silence is enormous, like a womb. I close my eyes, relax my jaw, open my arms, stretch my toes, follow the anchor, and think of the others.
Translated by Travis Price