by Zahid Gamieldien
Bita, drenched, shaking—her bones are shortbreads soaked in mother’s milk, her knuckles white, red, gripping, numb. She’s crouched against the gunwale of a boat that’s not much more than a skiff.
A wave whumps her crown, skittles those on deck. Recovering, they shuffle crab-like in their orange vests and latch onto whatever they can.
Brine is in her eyes. She can’t tell what comes from her and what from the ocean, and she’s forgotten about the child. But he’s there, in a pink life vest, chapped lips near her belly, too old to be wet-nursed.
Three weeks ago, she was nursing her own baby when a soldier with a port-wine stain on his brow snatched him from her nipple. Spiked him headlong into the ground. Bita’s scream curdled in her throat.
Her chest still heavy with unsuckled grief, she hears the child whimper. For an instant, she can see the coast. Then she can’t. The sea climbs, forms a snow-globe around them. They’re encased—a fossilized moment.
Now she’s under; everyone’s under. In her ears, a roar, the memory of shelling. Around her, tumbling limbs, snatches of color, costumes of skin.
Motes of air drift upward. Twisting, trying to follow, she feels a hand snatch at her ankle. She kicks, kicks, kicks, connects with a face, and she glides, seeking the surface.
It doesn’t arrive. Seawater slushes down her gullet. Suddenly there’s wind cutting up her trachea. She wheezes and her lungs expand.
In the distance, a shock of pink. Her arms flail, shovel water, will her toward it. When she reaches it, it’s just the child’s life vest, empty. She holds it to her cheek. The tide ebbs and swells, hoists her toward the sky.
Beyond the tumult, she can finally see the coast for what it is.