Undertow

By Jayson Carcione -

 

Another dead body. Flanagan sees it off the starboard bow, trapped in the milky glare of the searchlight. God, I hope it’s not a child, or worse a baby. We fished two out last week, like they were nothing but broken lobster pots. Flanagan is thinking the same. He doesn’t want to cradle another broken lobster pot baby in his arms. He cried when we found them. A boy and a girl. The girl reminded him of his little sister back in Bantry. The boy was too bloated and blue to remind us of anything. I cried too, but not on deck with the others. I cried later, I cried alone back in my cabin. It is the best time to cry. I can’t let the men see me cry.


Flanagan dips the searchlight into the dead sea again and I see the glow of a fluorescent life jacket — at least the poor bastard wore one. Waves ripple across the oily surface of the water. A moment ago — a lifetime ago — the sea was dead calm. Out here, things change quickly, it is the way of the sea, and we lose the body. Flanagan arcs the light, but the waves yield nothing. I grip the railing of the ship. I bend over the railing — I want to throw up. I see nothing, not even my own reflection in the water below. I lift myself from the railing. My breasts hurt. I scan the night sky and stretch. I press my hands into my lower back, my ribcage strains against my skin. I’ve lost weight. The sky is rotten with clouds and I can’t see the stars. I scan the horizon and tell Flanagan to cut the light with a finger swipe across my throat. The jewelled lights of fortress Europe beckon — that is why they come. I look at my watch, its creeping hands fluorescent like the life jacket. Two more hours till the end of watch. The rot of time. I’ll make it, but Flanagan is starting to fade. He always does around this time. He never gives in but his posture is telling. The shoulders hunch, he cracks his neck. I hate the sound of it. He gives me the thumbs up and flips the searchlight back on. I twirl a pointed finger like a slow moving helicopter. We never talk on watch. He nods and I begin to walk from bow to stern. I know he wants to kiss me. I know he is watching me as I walk away. I want him to kiss me.


I plunge my hands into the right pocket of my windbreaker and pull out a pair of gloves. It’s the height of summer. The air is thick and sultry, messes with your head, but my hands are cold. My hands are always cold. Just like my mother. She always wore gloves. As a child, I thought it was ladylike and refined, but her hands were just plain cold. I rub the back of my neck with a gloved hand, it’s knotted like a lump of Christmas tree lights. I smooth the hair at the sides of my head, make sure my cap is straight. My hair is black, blacker than the night sea giving up the bodies. It’s wolf-like, thick and furry, and as shiny as a raven. It’s almost alive — it’s really my best feature. So, naturally, I wear it cropped short.


We are anchored for the night, but the ship is moving. I am moving. The ship is always moving. To and fro, held by the restless sea. It calms me. Some sailors never get used to it — the constant motion, the quicksand beneath the feet. That’s poor Flanagan for you. He practically grew up on his father’s fishing boat, knew every rock and riptide in Bantry Bay before he could write his name. He was reared by the waves, the phases of the moon, whistled with the black-headed gulls from the oily deck of his father’s boat. The boat he could steer by looking at the stars. Out here is different. Flanagan is different — and he looks to me, a city girl, a landlubber, to right him. He needs me and I want him to need me. He is a barnacle unstuck from a rock. He walks the deck on eggshells, his stomach turns in the night. Sleep eludes him. Even when he sneaks into my cabin, sleep eludes him. Light is slipping now through that distant crack on the horizon. Clouds are thinning, the stars fading. It’s going to be a hot one. My hands are still cold. The sea is a black mirror. I can’t see my reflection. I can’t see Flanagan standing in at the bow of the ship. I pass under the bridge. The sun is rising, light attacks the windows of the bridge. I shield my eyes with the cup of my hand. Shadows move behind the glass. The officers are manning their stations. We will soon have our orders for the day. I take the stairs to the upper deck two at a time. The ship’s anchor rises from the water. It is gun metal grey, patched with muck and seaweed. A soiled plastic bag clings to the anchor before it is cast off by a breeze. I steady myself, the ship moves. The red sun breaches the horizon. The sea is clear, there are no sinking rafts, no listing dinghies, no bodies. Did we really see one earlier? I am standing in the bow of the ship, hands resting on its sharp tip. I am not wearing my gloves. We gain speed and the ship cuts through the water. The wind is on my face. I want to spit over the side but my mouth is dry. A trio of seagulls wheel above me. They scream out to me. I wish I had a pocketful of bread.


Where is Flanagan? Screams above me. Behind me, a whisper, a whimper. The pitiful, animal sound of human sobbing. Flanagan is sitting under the turret of the OTO gun. Knees up, his arms wrapped around them. He looks at me, doesn’t see me. I go to him, bend down. I caress his cheek. His eyes are red and raw, snot dangles from his nose. His hands are ice. They are on my cheeks, cradling my face like a broken egg. A broken lobster pot? He leans in, face close to mine. He doesn’t kiss me. His hands drop from my face and I feel naked, exposed. Alone on the deck of this ship breaking the dawn sea. Flanagan stands up, wipes his nose. He returns to the bow of the ship, stares at the sea. The seagulls have vanished. We stand side by side, hands down. I want to brush the tips of his fingers with my own but our crew mates walk the decks. Surely they know. We stand side by side. The day is clear, the sun painful. I want to sleep. A few hours, that’s all. We’ve been here two months now.


The girl died in Flanagan’s arms. She was still alive when we pulled her out of the water. She left us after a few faded breaths. Water deep in her lungs. Her little body trembled, her skin mottled like crushed blueberries. We were in the rubber dingy hauling in the survivors, clad in our white protective scrubs like astronauts from a distant world. Flanagan lifted his face mask to his brow, kissed the girl on the forehead like he had just read a bedtime story. Her eyelids trembled and closed. They opened again and she gave thanks; first in French, then Italian, then our own ancient tongue. Merci. Grazie. Go raibh maith agat. They know we are here. Here in this sea, waiting for them. South of the Sahara, they are learning the words. They think we all speak Irish. There are no borders on the open sea. She uttered the words again and she was gone. Flanagan refused to put the girl in a body bag. He held her all the way back to the Beckett.


He remembers. No, he cannot forget. He is thinking about the girl from last week. We all are. Our watch is over. We are unmoved, still moored at the bow. The ship has picked up speed and we hear the siren. The ships turns hard to port. A deathtrap fishing boat, a rubber raft, a makeshift vessel of wood and prayer — something out there is heaving with human misery. The smugglers put them on anything that floats and throw them out to sea like bloodied chum. Flanagan leaves me, doesn’t look at me. He rushes to change into our spaceman gear, check in with the lieutenant. I expected a quick hug, at least a furtive peck on the cheek. Nothing. I have to get ready too. No sleep today.


We are off the coast of Lampedusa. We are cruising towards the melting mess of a shoreline. The heat is killer, the sun will take your skin off. I don’t want to end up looking like a boiled lobster. I’m wearing the white scrubs but my face is exposed. I close my eyes, the wind slaps me around. I rub sunscreen into my face in quick circular motions, pull over the hood. Balm my lips. We are five miles closer to shore now. The ship eases into the rhythm of the waves, and stops. The anchor breaks the surface of the water. We are sitting in one of the Delta RIBs waiting to be lowered. I’m behind the wheel. Flanagan sits across from me. We are wearing goggles. The goggles are tight over my eyes. I can’t see Flanagan’s eyes. Casey sits behind the wheel of the other Delta. I don’t know Casey well but we went through Haulbowline together. I don’t know the man with him. Casey gives the thumbs up and the crane lowers his Delta into the water.


We skim the water. My hands vibrate on the wheel of the Delta. I squeeze it like a wet sponge. I inhale, taste the tang of the sea. Salt and seaweed on my lips. My white cowl is lowered, resting on the back of my neck. Wind is caught in my hair. It is the sirocco, born in the Sahara, standing in our way. Casey glides along next to me. Flanagan sits in the bow of the Delta like a sturdy little Buddha. Above the wind, the engine song of the Deltas, I hear the seagulls again. Are they following us? Their screams sound of slaughter, of birds caught in the hunter’s trap. I look up. There are no gulls. The sky is empty. It hurts my eyes. We break over the peaks of little whitecaps whipped up by the sirocco. We dip into a vast plateau of water and the boat is before us, bleeding into the sea.


The boat is listing to starboard. People are screaming. Men, women, children. Only the babies are silent. Babies silent at the exhausted breasts of their mothers. The sides of the boat rise and fall in shallow breaths. The boat is surrounded by bodies. Bodies floating face down. Bodies already slipping beneath the surface of the churning sea. Bodies clinging to a rotted hull. It is an open boat, a fishing boat made of wood meant to skim the shore. It is twice the size of a curragh. The boat is heaving. Bow to stern. Limbs upon limbs. The bodies come from another vessel — a motorised rubber boat — overturned and floating like the carcass of a harpooned whale. The lead boat, the smuggler’s boat. They usually tow the migrants out to open water and cut them adrift. Tangled hands from the open boat pull survivors on board. The boat groans with each new body. They lift one man on board and there is shouting. He cowers at the side of the boat. They surround him. One woman, her face scarred like a melting candle, stands over him and pummels him with a closed fist. He shields his face with brawny arms and the woman strikes him again. She backs away and the others set upon the man. They bury him. An avalanche of hands and feet, limbs burned by the sun, burned by leaking fuel from the boat. We are alongside the boat now. Casey is shouting. I radio the Beckett, report the presence of a smuggler. I shout at them and hear the beating of my heart. The smuggler is tossed overboard. What is left of him. I bring the Delta to the side of the stricken boat. Flanagan throws over life jackets. I hope the boat doesn’t list. Scarred, tangled limbs reach out to us. My throat tightens. I fight the urge to wretch. The boat is awash in vomit, blood, shit and fuel. It is up to their ankles. It flows in time with the sea, the pitch of the boat. I pull the cowl over my head, put on the face mask. Flanagan is shouting. He helps some women and children on board.


We can’t take them all. Casey can’t take them all. We have to tow the boat back to the Beckett. The candle-face woman who struck the smuggler shivers. She is a mother. She wears a purple headscarf. She sits in the bow of the Delta with her boy. Her breathing is erratic, there is fire in her lungs. She has inhaled leaking fuel. She convulses. Dry drowning. We can’t save her. Her boy does not whimper. His arms are scarred like the knotted branches of a willow tree. He rests his head on the lap of her corpse. Flanagan covers the boy with a mylar thermal blanket and turns away. I don’t know if is he is crying. Look at me, Flanagan. Look at me, my love. Flanagan stretches out his arms, takes one more girl on board. She is wrapped in tattered shawls. Stained with blood, flecked with shit. Flanagan tries to remove her soiled rags, give her a clean blanket. She recoils from his touch, wraps herself tighter in the rags. She wears the foil blanket like shawl, one end wrapped over her mouth and nose. Sunlights bends off the foil and returns to the sky. She shines like a fading star. We can only see her eyes.


We tow the boat back to the Beckett. Casey brings up the rear. I listen to the wind, the whizz and whirl of the motors. I listen to the water as we break the waves. I cannot listen to their cries. The Beckett looms before us. Our crewmates wait on the deck. The doctors and medics are ready. We help the migrants climb aboard the Beckett. We will scuttle their boat of blood, shit, and vomit. Our divers will carve it up with blowtorches. We will watch it slip beneath the water. Good riddance. The smugglers will have one less floating deathtrap to use. The main boatload of migrants are on board. Two crewmates put the dead woman from our Delta into a body bag. I smother my arms around her son and carry him up the ladder to the Beckett. I don’t want to let him go. I want to take him home. He could be my son. I will never have a son. My insides are ruined. I return to the Delta. Flanagan is trying to coax the wrapped up girl to get up, help her board the Beckett. Skeletal clouds darken the horizon. A squall is brewing. We best be on our way. The girl does not move. I go to her, bend down before her. She may respond to me. Men frighten her. Flanagan stands back, helpless. Most men are. “It’s ok. It’s ok,” I whisper. “You’re safe now.” Can she understand me? I place an arm on her shoulder. I hope she doesn’t mind. Her eyes peer out from the thermal foiled shawl. I caress her shoulder, try to nudge her up. Her eyes are locked on mine. She doesn’t mind my touch. She begins to rise and I steady her. Her arms are folded over her stomach. She stands up and vomits. Her hands fall to her sides. I strip off the vomit covered blanket. I begin to unwrap the other rags around her. She crosses her legs, covers her stomach again. It is bulging. The girl is crying. I peel back the onion-like layer of rags. She is exposed and placenta-stained. The umbilical cord falls at her feet like a dead serpent. Milky white and blistered with patches of blue. There is no baby attached to it. I shout for a doctor. There was no newborn on the the migrant boat. Where is the baby? Where is the baby? Flanagan knows. He looks at me, finally he looks at me. Flanagan knows and he is but a breath away from me. I taste his lips. They are cracked and salty. Flanagan knows. He knows in his heart it was the girl. A girl thrown into the sea. A little girl lost at sea. He pulls back the cowl of his protective white suit and dives into the water.

****

Another dead body. Casey sees it off the starboard bow, trapped in the milky glow of the moonlight. That squall never came. The night is clear, polished glass above a graveyard sea. He doesn’t have to tell me it is Flanagan. We will bring him on board. I will stand over his body. I will kneel down and wipe back the hair from his forehead. I will not cry on deck with the others. I will not let them see me cry. I will not make a sound. They will look at me but they will not see me cry. They will not hear me cry. For a breaking heart makes no sound.

 

Born in New Jersey, and bred in New York, Jayson Carcione now lives in Cork, Ireland, where he works for the Irish Examiner newspaper. His short fiction has appeared in Lunate and was highly commended in the 2020 Seán O’Faoláin International Short Story Competition.

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