Ali was born in his family’s stone house surrounded by hills and pasturelands. He was the first-born and spent his infancy learning the rhythm of his family. In the morning his mother, Meryem, kept him by her side as she tended the vegetable garden, kneaded dough and baked bread in the clay oven in the courtyard beyond the kitchen door. On summer days when Ali was old enough to crave the taste of bread, she gave him wedges of fresh bread with slices of cucumber and tomato and, in the winter, hunks of warm bread sprinkled with sesame seeds. In the evening his father, Tamir, came home from the fields, gathered his son in his arms and sat with him by the stove. His father tended goats and he smelled of the goats and the earth. Life to Ali then was smells—the smell of the fire, his mother’s clean skin, the bread she baked, the goats and the dust upon his father’s clothes.
When Ali was four, his sister, Sadira, was born. He became her protector from the threats of the hot kettle and the fire crackling in the stove.
At the age of five he sat in the doorway of his house and began to learn the rhythm of the land. In the mornings he watched his father herd the goats up the hill until each living thing slipped one by one over the crest and was gone. In the afternoons he watched the sun sink, smelled the hot grass and listened to the wind in the olive trees as he waited for his father and the goats to come over the hill toward home.
Ali joined his father in the fields when he was seven. His father taught him all he knew about goats. They’re as different as people, his father said. Some goats are friendly and some are earnest as soldiers. Some are born monarchs and they rule the others. Some are born skittish and never change. Young goats are like children. They hide themselves in crevices and holes in the earth. You have to know when one is missing and find it. You’ll love the goats because they’re living things, Tamir told Ali, but don’t get too fond of them since they are our livelihood.
As the goats dozed in the heat of the day, Ali and his father sat in what shade they could find. Tamir taught his son how to read the sky for storm clouds, where to find water and the best grass and how to drive away marauding dogs and wolves.
When they ate their lunch of bread, cheese, and olives, Tamir told Ali about his life. Once when his father was a boy he came upon a man with a globe. He had never seen a globe before and would never see one again. The man holding the globe pointed with his finger to their homeland. Tamir told Ali that he’d learned from the globe that the earth is full of other lands and that there are oceans all around them. It made his homeland small and dry. The globe was something Ali’s father wished he’d never seen.
When Ali was sixteen his father asked him, “What about the world, Ali? Do you think of it much?”
Ali was tall, strong and at home on the land. “I think about it, but then my mind comes back home.”
“We have a quiet life here, Ali, but nothing is as it seems. There’s discontent in the cities and discontent spreads, even to us here.”
“What have you heard?” Ali asked. This was the first time his father had spoken about unrest coming so close to home.
“Just talk from people who’ve been to the cities. There are people who want to rule us. They aren’t merciful to people who disagree or wish to be left alone. Be wary, Ali, and wise about the people you trust.”
“Why would they come here?” Ali asked. “We have just our land and goats.”
“Perhaps because we have just our land and goats.”
Before his father’s warning Ali saw the hills around his home as walls set against the world. After his father’s warning he scanned their jagged silhouettes that towered over him. Their peaks were his reference as he and his father took the goats to the pasturelands and back home again. When the sun shined on their broad, sheer stones he knew the time of day. He looked at them with reverence for being ramparts, but he began to search them for the glint of metal to warn him that the discontent his father told him about had ascended the peaks and was spilling toward his home.
In the autumn Tamir suffered short spells of coughing, but the spells became longer as the days grew colder. By early winter he became too weak to stand and Ali tended the goats alone, reluctant for the first time in his life to return home since it had become the place where his father was too sick to leave his bed. His mother whispered “Tamir, Tamir” to keep him from slipping away as she held tea made from thyme for him to sip and Sadira, hunched by the stove, flinched as she snapped sticks for the fire as though the sound itself might disturb her father.
On a winter night Tamir lay in bed, his eyes closed, and his eyelids trembling. His breath rattled in his throat as he murmured, but his wife, son and daughter, leaning over him to listen, couldn’t understand him and took no comfort in his last words. His breathing grew faint and his face softened. In death his father seemed, to Ali, to sink deep into the bed.
Ali tended the goats, his mother and Sadira tended the house, the clay oven and the vegetable garden. The family became silent as they went about their days with the ghost of Tamir in the pasturelands and in each corner of the house.
In the spring Ali learned his father was right to be wary when he heard that invaders stormed a city a hundred miles to the east. Soldiers and tanks streamed into the city and turned apartment buildings and shops, schools and museums into rubble. The people who survived fled into the countryside. Ali had never been to the city and it all seemed far away. Several families who’d survived sought refuge in an abandoned house not far from Ali’s home. The families kept to themselves, but those who saw them said they were terrified, especially the children who no longer seemed like children since they were as vigilant and skittish as deer.
Ali listened to the stories. The survivors said the invaders were ravenous for territory. They wanted cities and farmland. Ali loved his mother and sister, his land, and his goats, but he loved them more fiercely when he heard this. During the day he grazed the goats closer to home. At night he kept watch at the windows until his mother told him to rest.
The city fell to the invaders and the invaders streamed into the countryside. Still it was better to be in the country, Ali decided. He heard that in the cities bombs fell out of the sky and he tried to imagine what it must be like to listen for airplanes and run for cover when they came. It must be like living in a bolt of lightning when the bombs fell. In the country, at least, he could listen for the crunch of boots on the stones. He found three heavy pieces of wood, fashioned them into clubs, and gave one to his mother and one to his sister. He told them to use their clubs if anyone they didn’t know broke into the house and to bring the ax into the kitchen when they’d finished chopping the firewood. Ali’s mother and Sadira slept with their clubs by their sides. Ali slept with his hand wrapped around his club, full of anger at the invaders he’d not yet set eyes on and hoping he had it in him to bash a stranger’s skull open.
Word came that people in the countryside to the east were too fearful to stay and found refuge in places far away. Some people left in groups and no one heard from them again. Most hoped this meant they were safe living elsewhere. Some people left, made their way alone to a new home, and arranged for their families to follow.
Ali made a bigger pen beside the house for the goats so he wouldn’t have to be far from home. He talked to the goats as he tended them since it comforted them and it comforted him to do this.
One evening after dinner Meryem called her children to sit with her. She told them it was time they do more than keep the goats penned in and sleep with clubs beside them in their beds.
“I have my ring and silver bracelet,” she said to Ali. “I’ll sell them and this will give you something to start your journey to find a safe place for us.”
“I won’t leave you here alone,” Ali said.
“For now we’re safe, but you must go.”
Sadira protested, “We should all go together.”
“One person travels faster than three,” Meryem said.
“This is our home,” Ali said.
“If we stay our lives won’t be worth living, Ali.”
Two days later the family set off for the village where Meryem sold her wedding band and silver bracelet that Tamir had given her when they were married and the hammered copper plate that hung over the hearth. The man who bought Meryem’s possessions had a kind, but weary face. Meryem leaned toward him as she sat with her children beside her. She asked if he knew people who’d left to find safe places elsewhere. The man nodded and Ali’s heart raced as he listened.
“Yes,” the man said, his voice low. “Most people I’ve heard of travel to the coast. They meet others on the way and travel together. There are places on the coast where smugglers meet the people and put them on ships.”
“Is it safe?” Meryem asked.
“Nothing is safe these days,” the man said.
“Where do the ships take the people?” Sadira asked.
“I hear that many go to Italy and Greece,” the man answered.
All Ali heard about Italy was that it had big cities and hills covered with trees. As for Greece, he’d heard the houses were so white they stood against the sky and sea like lumps of sugar. Neither was as good as home.
They returned home and went about their lives as though there were no plans for Ali to leave. As Ali tended the goats he hoped his mother had decided her plan was too dangerous and they should stay together, but she was stern and silent as she baked bread and harvested her vegetable garden. He’d never seen her so stern. He believed she was hardening herself to prepare for his departure. Sadira, though, was softer around him. She followed Ali as he tended the goats and helped him more than she’d helped before. Ali believed this was her way to prepare for his departure. Ali didn’t know how to prepare himself. He was frightened for his mother and sister alone in the house and full of aimless heroism as he dreamed of staying home so the land wouldn’t be lost.
His mother said over dinner three weeks after selling her ring, bracelet and the copper plate that it was time for Ali to go. It surprised him that he felt more relief than fear.
He spent the next day chopping extra firewood and fixing the broken latch on the gate to the goat pen. That night his mother asked Ali to come sit with her.
“I know you want to stay because this is our land,” she said, “but this is about more than land.”
“But once we leave, we’ve lost it forever,” Ali said.
“Your father would never want us to stay if it meant we might die here.”
Meryem got up and went to the stove. Ali watched her raw, thin hands as she opened the stove and tossed sticks into the fire. He’d watched her do this his whole life. All he had was one more night left to sleep in his home. His father had lived and died in this house. His mother and sister might die in this house if he didn’t leave.
“You cannot stay,” his mother said as she stood at the stove. She was shedding her hardness, becoming the mother he knew. “You’re our only hope,” she said.
Ali went to the stove and took his mother’s hands in his hands. What would his father say at a time like this, he wondered. But his father hadn’t lived this kind of moment. His mother touched his shoulder and Ali, filled with sadness, went to his bed for the last time.
As the fire died in the stove, Ali knew he could not fail in what he was about to do. He had to walk to the sea, get across the sea, find a new home, make money and send for his mother and sister. If his father were alive, he would do this for them. Across the room his mother and sister were silent in their beds. He doubted they were asleep. Tomorrow, all things would be different.
In the morning Ali left his family home with three flasks of water and a sack full of bread and cheese and cucumbers and tomatoes from his mother’s garden. The money from the possessions his mother sold was wedged in a slit in the heel of each boot. The boots had belonged to his father and his mother had rubbed oil on them to make them soft and to keep them from cracking. They were good boots that served his father well, she told Ali, and they would get him where he needed to go. Ali told his mother and sister to be alert, to keep their clubs nearby, to trust no one they didn’t know and to doubt those they did know. He imagined his father would have said these things if he were the one leaving. He set off westward to the sea, climbed the same hill he’d climbed with his father, but didn’t look back toward home as he reached its crest. His mother and sister, he knew, were standing outside the house to watch him until he slipped over the hilltop, but he couldn’t bear to see them alone off in the distance.
He trudged along for days, meeting no one except other shepherds. Some evenings they welcomed him to sit beside their fire and shared their dinner with him.
Halfway to the sea Ali met people fleeing to the coast and he joined them. The men and women in the group were grim and vigilant. Some were hurt and their wounds bandaged in what clean garments they had with them. Others carried nothing with them and Ali knew they must be the people who’d survived and scrambled from the ruins of their homes. A few walked ahead of the group, their pace frantic while others walked with blank expressions.
The children were unlike any children Ali had ever seen. The older children had lost the look of ever being children. They were as vigilant as their parents as they guarded their younger brothers and sisters. The younger children walked with breaking hearts. Their eyes glimpsed at their parents and older siblings and then at the landscape as though they hoped to find something familiar. Sometimes one of the young children pointed at a bird in the sky or stopped to admire a shiny stone, but the joy was short. One afternoon Ali saw a child stumble and he lifted her onto his shoulders. As he carried the child, he heard the child’s mother tell another woman that she kept her children in gray and brown clothing so they’d blend into the terrain. The other woman nodded. Ali understood as well. No one, not even a child, could expect mercy.
At dusk the group settled under acacia trees or in shallow valleys. When darkness fell and Ali tried to sleep, he feared for his mother and sister alone in their stone house. Most nights he barely slept and watched the sky, anxious for the time the stars began to pale and the beginning of another day’s walk to the sea.
There were other men traveling alone like Ali and he was relieved to have their company, but one evening two men left the group to return to their families. The men who stayed said this was the worst thing to do. The men would get themselves killed and there would be no one to save their families. The women whispered among themselves and Ali listened. Go together as a family or not at all, they said.
Ali grew more anxious. If he told the men he feared for his family, they’d tell him to keep going, but the women would tell him to go back. His mother had told him, “You’re our only hope.” He wondered what his father would tell him. “Go, son” was what Ali guessed his father would say.
A young man joined the group one afternoon and fell in step with Ali. He was taller than Ali and had a rim of stubble along his jaw. Ali guessed he was older and he walked with his head down and his hands in his pockets as though he had much to think about. Ali broke the silence. He said his name and that he came from the countryside to the north. The man nodded and said his name was Rafi and that he’d grown corn and tended olive trees until the soldiers took his land.
“They wanted me to march off with them,” Rafi said. “I wanted none of that.”
He asked Ali about his life, but Ali spoke only about herding goats. He kept his mother and sister to himself in his worry that Rafi might tell him leaving them was a mistake. Ali had enough doubt and he didn’t want to hear it in the voice of Rafi.
One morning as the two of them walked side by side, Rafi said, “Go the to gunwale. You know what that is?”
Ali shook his head.
“The edge of the boat. It gives you something to lean against when you rest and something to hold onto when the seas get rough. And if you get seasick you don’t want to be in the middle of the boat.”
“How do you know this?” Ali asked.
Rafi shrugged. “Just stick close to me.”
They reached the final hills three days later. On the last hilltop Ali stood with the sea spread before him, blue as hammered tin; it was sky fallen to earth and it was escape.
Rafi stood next to Ali and said they’d wait on the hilltop until a man came to count how many had gathered. “He’ll collect the passage money, but if there aren’t enough people for one boat he’ll leave and come back in a few days.”
Ali knew then that Rafi had made this journey before. “Are there enough of us now?”
Rafi glanced at the group. “It depends on the size of the boat the smugglers have for us.”
“What happened the first time you did this?” Ali asked.
Rafi shrugged. “We only got so far before the coast guard saw us.”
“But you got away?”
“We got the boat back to shore and ran. If that happens, run and then we’ll just try again.”
As Rafi spoke Ali stood with his head down. This couldn’t happen to him. He couldn’t return home, all the money spent just to tell his mother and sister he’d leaped off the boat, made it back to shore, hid until it was safe, that he’d failed and he was home again and not the one to bring them to safety.
Late in the afternoon a black truck came across the countryside and skidded to a halt on the hilltop. A man got out from behind the wheel and walked to the group. He was tall and young, dressed in dark trousers, a white shirt and shiny boots. Rafi said to Ali, “This is Waseem. I know him from my first try. He’s the one who gets the boat.”
Waseem approached Rafi who bowed his head and wished him good health. Ali hadn’t seen Rafi this courteous to any other people in the group and realized this man was important. He bowed his head as well. Waseem offered no greeting in return. His eyes scanned the crowd as he asked, “How many so far?”
“Forty-three including the children,” Rafi answered.
“That’s enough for a boat,” Waseem said.
The people on the hilltop had gathered closer to Waseem and Ali saw in their eyes the same fear and awe he felt. Waseem stepped away from Rafi and told the crowd he was here to collect the money. Men and women reached into their cloaks, their shirts, sacks and backpacks. Ali sat down to take off his boots. When he’d taken the money from the slits in his boots, he put his boots back on and stood. Rafi hadn’t moved and his hands held no money.
“What about you, Rafi?” Ali asked.
“I have an arrangement,” Rafi said, his eyes on Waseem as he collected the money. His voice had a nervous sound Ali hadn’t heard before.
Waseem came to Ali and took his money. He counted it and then shoved it back in Ali’s hands. “This isn’t enough,” he said.
Ali realized he was nothing to this man. His mother and sister were spending their days in the small realm of house, vegetable garden, and goat pen, guarding themselves with clubs and ax, his mother had sold her only decent possessions and this man said this was not enough. Ali wished to either fall to his knees to beg the man for a place on the boat or find a stone to hurl at his shiny truck when Rafi said, “He can help me navigate.”
“You’re the navigator,” Waseem said.
“Take his money and let him work off the rest by helping me,” Rafi said.
Waseem stood over Rafi and Ali. His eyes went from one to the other. The hilltop was quiet as the crowd watched the two boys and Waseem. Finally Waseem grabbed the money from Ali’s hands and shoved it in the pouch with the rest of the money he’d collected. He turned and walked toward his truck, shouting over his shoulder at Rafi to follow him. Rafi told Ali, “You too.”
At the truck Waseem tossed a silver disk at Rafi. “Your compass,” he said.
Rafi held the compass in his palm. Ali glanced at the face of the compass and then back at the truck as Waseem got behind the wheel.
“Watch for the boat tomorrow morning,” Waseem said. “You’ll head northwest.”
As Waseem started the engine and drove toward the open countryside, Rafi held the compass over his head and shouted to the group, “The boat comes for us in the morning.”
The men and women on the hill raised their hands and looked to the sky in their joy before returning to their places on the hilltop to prepare for the morning. Ali still worried about failure and he followed Rafi who’d begun to walk in a wide circle on the hilltop, his eyes on the compass as the needle swung beneath the glass.
“I’ve never navigated before,” Ali said.
“I know that,” Rafi said.
“How does the compass work?”
Rafi was silent. He had none of his certainty and Ali guessed that Rafi had never seen an instrument like this.
“He told us to head northwest. Is that the way to Greece?” Ali asked.
Rafi tapped the face of the compass. “It might be.” He shook his head and slipped the compass in his pocket.
In the morning, just after sunrise, the air filled with a rhythmic noise. Rafi told Ali the boat was here. He followed Rafi to the edge of the hilltop and shielded his eyes against the bright water as a fishing boat sailed around the rocky outcropping on the coast. Behind the fishing boat, pulled by a rope, was a small empty blue boat riding high in the water, its blue paint blistered, its seats open to the sun. Ali feared there wasn’t enough room for all the people on the hilltop.
Rafi turned to the people as he took the compass from his pocket. He held it over his head and said, “Follow me.” Ali fell in step behind Rafi. He wanted to ask Rafi if this boat was smaller than his first boat, but he was afraid of the answer. Behind him footsteps scuffed on the path, men and women talked in amazed voices at the sight of the boat. Children chattered. This was the first time they’d seemed like children to Ali.
When they were on the beach, Rafi and Ali walked into the water and thrashed through the waves to the boat. Ali became dizzy by the water’s motion and stumbled in the waves as they crashed against his legs. He gathered himself and stood, his clothes soaked and water streaming from his hair. He tasted his first salt water on his lips. Behind him he heard others struggling in the waves, but the only cries were from the children fascinated by the water. Rafi staggered beside him, but managed to keep on his feet. When they reached the boat, they heaved themselves onboard, took their places across from each other, and then reached into the sea to help people into the boat.
As the boat filled, it rode so low in the water that Ali feared they’d sink while still within sight of the shore. He watched Rafi who was waving his arms at the fishing boat. “No more,” he shouted at the larger boat where a man waved his arms back at Rafi. The people still in the water around the boat raised their hands and Ali reached for them. Rafi shouted, “Stop or you’ll sink us!” Ali raised his eyes to the fishing boat. The man who’d waved at Rafi stood at the front of the boat with his hands on the wheel. The engine roared and Ali felt the boat lurch beneath him.
The people still in the water called out and those on shore ran into the waves. People on the boat screamed to those in the water. A woman on the boat struggled to go back into the water, but two other women held her back. She raised her face to the sky and began to keen, her cries so sharp that Ali lowered his head and covered his ears. He considered slipping over the edge of the boat and giving another person his place while there was still time. All he’d done for his great fortune of getting a place on the boat was to help Rafi navigate when neither of them knew how to read a compass. This was the first depravity of his life to sail off and leave those still in the water and waiting on shore. But his mother and sister needed him to cross the ocean. He raised his head. The woman’s cries were softer. The women beside her had their hands on her shoulders and were speaking to her, although Ali couldn’t hear what they said. They may have been telling her what he’d told himself. Stay here, cross the sea, and then you can save your family.
The fishing boat pulled the smaller boat out to sea. A man on the deck of the fishing boat whistled and made pulling motions with his arms. Rafi called to the men at the front of the boat, “Untie the line.” The fishing boat slowed and the rope went slack. The men at the front of the boat untied the line, dropped it into the water and the crew on the fishing boat pulled it toward them. As they coiled the rope, Ali envied them their larger boat and their skill.
As the fishing boat became a black shape on the horizon, Rafi dug the compass out of his pocket. Ali made his way to Rafi and squeezed in beside him. They studied the compass, but it was as much of a mystery to them at sea as it had been on land.
“We don’t have oars to row northwest,” Rafi said, “so what good is a compass? The current will take us.”
“Take us where?” Ali asked.
Rafi said nothing, but his eyes searched the sea. Ali guessed he was searching for the kind of ship that forced him back to land the first time he tried to escape, but the sea was empty.
An older man sitting at the front of the boat turned to Rafi. “Which direction to Greece?” he asked.
Rafi held the compass before him. “Waseem told us to head northwest, but we have no oars,” he said.
“Then we make oars,” the man said.
“From what?” Rafi asked.
The older man slashed the air with his hand in his anger. He called out for anything made of wood or metal to use as oars. The wind ruffled his white hair as he scanned the people on the boat. No one had anything but the clothes on their backs and, for the lucky few, family possessions shoved in sacks before fleeing their homes. The older man turned his back to the boat and scanned the horizon. Ali trailed his hand in the water and felt what he hoped was a good strong northwest current.
The sun beat down on the boat. Men and women shielded their children with their garments. When a woman dipped her hands in the water to cool the face of her child, Rafi spoke loud enough for all to hear. “Don’t drink the seawater or it will kill you.” Rafi settled back against the gunwale after he’d spoken. Ali clenched his jaw against the seasickness lurking in the pit of his stomach as he scanned the empty horizon. The sea had dazzled Ali on the hilltop, but he’d seen enough of it.
Darkness fell. The blackness made Ali feel suspended between the stars and water. His father told him they had familiar trees and hills to guide them home, but some people used stars. Ali asked Rafi if he knew how to follow the stars. Rafi, half asleep, shook his head. Ali gazed at the brightest star. He didn’t have the knowledge to untangle the one star that would guide them from all the others. They had no oars to row even if he knew which star led the way to Greece. He closed his eyes to sleep.
In the morning Ali dipped his hands in the ocean and washed his face. He glanced over at Rafi as he slept, the useless compass a round shape in his pocket. The sea was rough and the boat pitched and tossed more than it had the day before. More people gave into seasickness. Ali vomited once into the ocean and the man next to him turned from him in disgust.
Silence fell on the boat as people slept in the heat. The children had chattered at first, pointing at the horizon and the birds when there were still birds, but the adventure was over and they’d fallen silent as well. The men and women who were awake watched the horizon. The hard, bright light played tricks on some and their bodies tensed as they believed in the ships or land they saw, but there was nothing except the sun on the water and the blue boat.
In the afternoon the white-haired man at the front of the boat demanded to see the compass. Rafi surrendered it and Ali hoped the man could make sense of how the needle moved. The old man studied the compass as he raised and lowered it and moved it in a wide arc before him before he passed it back to Rafi. Ali knew this man might be a teacher or farmer or shopkeeper and wise in his own way, but he, like them, had never seen a compass.
“It’s no good without oars,” Rafi said to the man.
On their tenth day at sea, Ali dreamed about his mother’s clay oven. The oven she tended each day was in pieces and he was standing in the courtyard gathering up the shards. A hand shaking his shoulder woke him. Ali opened his eyes to see the face of a clean-shaven man with brown eyes. A silver medallion on his hat flashed in the sun. A tall ship rocked in the water next to the small boat. It made noise like a hundred tractors working the land. Men on the tall ship tossed orange rings into the water. The man with the silver medallion on his hat shoved an orange vest down over Ali’s head and pulled him up and toward a rope ladder hanging from the ship. He raised his hands in the air to show Ali he had to climb the ladder. Ali stumbled toward the ladder and fell against a nail sticking out of one of the ribs in the boat. The pain in his right arm made him think of sharp, silver razors. Blood flowed from the jagged wound on his forearm and dripped from his fingers. Ali got up, wiped his arm against his trousers, made his way to the ladder and began to climb. Halfway up he looked down and saw the small boat rising and falling in the sea and looked up and saw the tall ship rising and falling against the sky. Someone punched the back of his knees and shouted at him to climb.
A man in a blue uniform reached down from the ship, took Ali’s hand and pulled him up until Ali was standing on the deck beside him. He pushed Ali toward an empty space where he sank down gratefully with his back against the deck railing. Rafi sat on the other side of the ship with his arms crossed at his chest and his head down. Ali shouted his name, but Rafi didn’t raise his head. One of the men came to Ali with a gray box and knelt beside him. He took a brown bottle out of the box, washed Ali’s wound and wrapped his arm in a white bandage. He told Ali something he didn’t understand as he tapped his arm gently and Ali believed the man was telling him to keep the bandage on. A man stepped amid all the people sitting on the deck and passed out bottles of water and chocolate bars wrapped in silver foil. Ali drank a bottle of water and wolfed down the chocolate as he gazed at the flat, brown land on the horizon. It wasn’t the way he’d pictured Greece.
As the ship reached port, men on the ship hurled ropes to men on the pier. Ali stood as the men on dry land pulled on the ropes and the ship, its engines throbbing, drew closer to the pier. The men on the ship moved along the decks, busy in their work of bringing a ship back to land. Ali wasn’t sure which man had pulled him up from the blue boat. All of the men were dressed in dark blue shirts and pants, black boots and hats with silver medallions. Several of the men in blue gathered the younger children in their arms and carried them to the pier. Others helped the older men and women off the ship. Ali walked off the ship on his own, breathing the hot metal and salt air smell of his new home.
Men in brown uniforms met the men, women and children on the pier and led them to a cluster of sand-colored buildings surrounded by a wire fence. Several men at the gate met the group, shouted in their foreign language and began to divide the women and children from the men. Husbands, wives and children protested. Guards marched the women and children to a building standing in the shade of a cluster of palm trees while other guards marched the men to a building standing in the sun on the other side of the compound. When some of the men refused, more guards arrived and kicked at the men and raised their rifles in warning. Ali feared this wasn’t Greece or Italy, but the start of more misery.
Guards surrounded the men as they were marched to a concrete building with thin slits of barred windows beneath the roofline. At the entrance another guard motioned at the men to file in.
Ali was one of the first to enter the building, which was nothing more than a single room. The air in the room smelled of sun baked concrete, unwashed bodies, and the same smell from the boat of clothes soaked in sweat, salt water, dried in the sun, and soaked again. “We are lost,” the man standing next to Ali said. He had the steady expression of a man stating fact.
More men came into the room and Ali moved to find a place for himself in the corner. The room filled and still the door was open as men filed in. Ali tucked his knees against his chest to make space for the others. When the door finally closed, Ali’s shoulders rubbed the shoulders of the men beside him, his arms touched their arms, and the tips of his boots rubbed against the man in front of him. All of the men sat with their knees drawn to their chests, most with their heads up, but some with their foreheads on their knees. Ali searched the room for Rafi and found him on the other side, his head on his knees as he rocked back and forth. He was glad they were sitting apart. He couldn’t bear it if Rafi told him he’d lost all hope.
Late in the afternoon of their first day in the room, the door opened and a guard spoke to them in his foreign language. No one understood him, but when he finished two more guards came to the door with a metal drum and two baskets full of loaves of bread. The men in the room sat up straighter, all eyes on the plates as they were filled and passed into the room one by one. Ali wolfed his meal—a stew of vegetables with bits of fat and the bread—and when he finished, he passed his plate to the guards as the other men did. The dull ache of hunger was gone, but his wound throbbed and burned and he had no peace.
Days passed in the crowded room. At first the men were hopeful. They listened for the sound of the women and children, but all the men heard were the stamping boots of the guards at the door, their foreign language, and the oiled click of their rifles. The days began to have a routine as the guards brought stew and bread in the morning and evening and replenished the water buckets in the corners of the room every few hours. Ali reasoned they couldn’t keep them here much longer. We take up their food, their time and their space, he said to the man next to him who raised his eyes to the cracked ceiling in the way Ali remembered his father used to do when he asked God for help.
The itching came suddenly. It swept over Ali and the men around him like a fire in a dry field. Lice, one of the men said. Ali scratched his arms and his legs until they bled and raked his hands fiercely through his hair.
The room smelled of sewage as the pit in the corner filled. Ali took a lesson from the other men in the room and tore a strip of fabric from his shirt to wrap around his nose and mouth. At times he wanted to retch the way he did on the boat, but put his head down and thought about home. No one had asked his name or where he came from. His mother and sister must believe he’d died. He began to write letters in his mind to calm his fears.
I’m in a strange place, but I don’t think I’ve reached Greece or Italy. When I’m free I will somehow get to Greece and make a home for us. Until then, watch the hillsides for soldiers. If you see them, you and Sadira must run.
At night, his body aching from sitting in one place except for the miserable shuffling crawl to the latrine and water buckets, Ali managed to sleep in short bursts. His legs and arms ached when he woke, his skin crawled and itched and his wound burned. As he listened to the men around him moan in their sleep, Ali missed the hope he had on his journey. This wasn’t Greece or Italy, but some other place made worse by not knowing its name.
I’m still in the same place. I want to warn you about the sea. Don’t let it frighten you when you see it for the first time. It’s big and wide and moves like no water we have at home. I’ll get you and Sadira a bigger boat than the one I was on. This is my promise to you. Soon I’ll be free. They can’t keep us long since we are a burden. I’ll make my way to Greece. We’ll live in a white house that looks out over the sea.
The first man to die in the room died in the night. As the men who’d slept next to him came awake, they nudged the dead man, smacked his cheeks lightly, shook his shoulders and then shouted for the guard. Sunlight streamed into the room as the guard opened the door and stepped inside. His eyes swept over the room until he found the one man flat upon the floor and motioned to the men beside him to carry him outside. The men stood and picked up the dead man by his wrists and ankles. He was young and to Ali it was like seeing himself dead and carried away. The dead man’s hair hung from the back of his head and his arms and legs were as bloody from scratching at the maddening lice as Ali’s arms and legs. He searched the room for Rafi and saw him with his knees against his chest and his head down. He was losing hope, Ali thought, and wondered if Rafi saw the same in him from across the room.
The guard stepped back from the door and waved at the two men to follow. A murmur went through the room about the dead man and what would become of the living men who’d carried him from the room.
When the men returned in the middle of the morning, they were grim and soaked with sweat. They drank from the water buckets as the men in the room shouted questions about the women and children, what they’d seen on the compound and what they had been made to do with the dead man.
When the men finished drinking, they dropped the ladles in the buckets. The man who’d held the wrists of the dead man as he carried him out of the room said, “We dug a grave for the dead boy. There’s no women or children here. There’s no town near us. Just guards and cliffs that drop down to the sea.”
After the first death, Ali hoped the guards would show mercy, but the stew ladled on the plates became thin, the water buckets ran dry some afternoons and the latrine overflowed so the men closest to it had to find other places to sit. Lice tortured the men and Ali fantasized about diving into the sea to rid himself of the creeping itch. He glanced occasionally at Rafi whose face had become blank. Sometimes he held the useless compass in his hand. Ali began to believe that each of them in the room would die one by one. He studied the windows for escape. They were set high in the walls and any man who wanted to work at pulling the bars loose would have to stand on the shoulders of another. He dug his fingers into the cracks in the floor until they bled, but the cracks didn’t give way.
Ali was certain when he left home that he’d be free if he survived the journey to the sea and the sea itself. He’d never imagined himself locked up and wasting away. The pain of his injured arm was with him day and night and gave him strange dreams of walking in narrow crevices lined with rocks that scraped his arms raw. When he woke he was full of hopelessness. He’d become his one flawed arm and it would keep him from the hard work he had to do to save his mother and sister.
I pray you and Sadira are safe. Please be watchful and trust no one. I never wanted to fail you and my sister.
A week passed. The rations became smaller—one plate of stew a day and a mouthful of bread every two or three days. Some of the men in the room shouted demands for more food and a chance to stretch their legs outside. The guards were silent most days, but if their tempers flared, they’d open the door, scream at the men in their foreign language and point their rifles into the room.
Ali’s pain blurred time. Each afternoon the room hummed with the heat descending from the sun baked roof, the murmur of the men talking and the rasp of feet as men made their way to the latrine and water buckets and back to their places. The bandage on Ali’s arm was black and smelled of infection. He took it off once, but the sight of his raw, glistening wound made him keep his arm wrapped. The pain never let up and he sat soaked with sweat as he tried to make the pain a single deep spot on his arm and not the long river of pain that spread from his fingertips to his shoulder. His father had taught him to marshal the pain when he was young and stumbled on sharp rocks, burned his hands on hot firewood and has his feet trod on by the goats. Force the pain into one small place and keep it there, his father told him. Ali tried, but finally the pain became so great he cried out. The men around him shouted to the guards that a boy was sick and needed attention.
A guard, older than the others, opened the door. The men around Ali pointed at him and the guard motioned Ali to the door. He obeyed, dizzy as he walked and sick to his stomach from the pain that was worse now that his heart beat faster from standing. The guard stopped Ali at the door, grasped his wrist and unwound the bandage. He groaned in disgust as he dropped the bandage to the floor. Ali turned his head away from the sight of his red, swollen arm. A skinned carcass is what it had become, he realized, and the smell was of rotting flesh. He clenched his jaw to keep from being sick.
The older guard waved Ali outside and then set off across the compound. Ali, in the first full sunlight since he’d left the ocean, wanted to sit, but he feared the guard at the door would hit him if he moved. As he swayed in the sun, the guard placed his hand on Ali’s shoulder. Ali flinched, but the guard pressed down on his shoulder and Ali sat. Daylight had never had weight like this.
His head down and the sun shining on his fevered skin, Ali stared at the guard’s boots. They were new with thick soles black as charcoal and untied laces that trailed in the dust. He reached for the guard’s boots. The guard stepped back and spoke in words Ali didn’t understand. He raised his face to the guard. The sun was a white disk balanced upon the top of his head. Ali bowed his head and touched his own boots. They were black as beetles; the oily shine his mother had rubbed into them was gone. He rubbed a hand over each boot. His right hand ached and his fingers felt plumb and stiff.
“My father’s boots,” Ali said, his eyes still on his boots. “He saw a globe once. Have you seen a globe? I never have.”
Ali held his left arm up to shield his eyes from the sun as he looked at the silent guard. To Ali the man had become a shiny plate of metal rising over him. He licked his lips with a tongue hard as a stone. His tongue, his hands upon his boots, his feet in his boots no longer felt like part of his body.
The older guard returned with a metal box he opened as he knelt in front of Ali. He spoke to him in a kind voice as he unhooked a canteen from his belt, opened it and poured the warm water over Ali’s wound. The water and the salt from his sweat made Ali cry out. The guard placed his canteen on the ground, his eyes on the wound as he shook his head. He took a roll of fresh bandage from the metal box. He pulled Ali’s arm until it was straight and wrapped the bandage around his wound. He stood, motioned to Ali to stand and waved him back into the room. The men cleared a path for Ali. His feet fooled him; his head fooled him. They weren’t part of him and he believed he didn’t walk through the room, but floated, a hard metal taste in his mouth from having to see the foul thing his arm had become. Back in his spot, Ali sat with his knees tucked against his chest. Blood seeped through his bandage and his arm was heavy as iron. He rocked back and forth the way the old men around him rocked.
Another man died during the third week in the room. He was an older man who’d asked again and again if anyone had seen the women and children. The men around him told him no, their voices kind at first until they grew tired of the same question and told him to be quiet. The two men who sat closest to the old man carried his body to the door. The guard waved them out into the compound and the men were gone for as long as it took to dig a grave. When they returned from their labor, they went to the buckets to drink as the two men who’d dug the first grave had done. A man asked them, “Have the women and children been brought back?” His voice was faint and other men leaned forward for the answer. The men who’d dug the grave shook their heads. The woman who screamed, Ali thought, the women who kept her from swimming to shore and comforted her, the children chattering at first and then hypnotized by the sea and monotony until all they did was sleep or stare at the horizon with vacant eyes, all of them had vanished.
Ali dreamed of his house as he slept in the fetid stillness of the concrete room. He stumbled toward it in his clean, oiled boots. He came closer and saw his mother’s vegetable garden was picked clean and the courtyard behind the house where the clay oven once stood was a trampled, empty patch of land.
Ali opened his eyes. The room was still and the air trembled with heat. He hugged his knees to his chest and rocked back and forth. How long have I been here? A month, maybe longer. When I return home, I’ll surprise my sister as she chops the wood. I’ll take the ax from her hands and tell her to rest. I’ll go into the house and find my mother beside the stove. She’ll take my hands in her hands. I’ll sit by the fire. My mother and Sadira will sit beside me. I fear they’ve had to use their clubs and ax to defend themselves and done things they never believed they would have to do. From now on I’ll take the clubs and ax in my own hands. They can finally close their eyes and rest. I never saw Greece and I never saw Italy, I’ll tell them. Greece and Italy are mirages. I was some other place, but I don’t know where. My mother brings food and we eat and I am finally at peace.
Ali stopped rocking and lifted his head. Home was gone. Death was everywhere and Ali was amazed he’d never noticed this before. It was in the dry grass, it was in the firewood chopped, thrown into the fire and turned to ash, it was in the sickly goats he carried on his shoulders and in his father as he sank deep into his bed on the last day of his life. It was in this room where men had already died and those that were left softly breathed and dreamed their good and bad dreams only to wake up, open their eyes to the cracked ceiling and the smell of sewage and unwashed bodies and know that all they could do was wait for whatever was to be done to them.
Ali lowered himself upon the floor. The men around him grumbled, but made room. His arms and legs were so heavy he couldn’t move them. He closed his eyes.
The guard heard the shouts and opened the door. Two men in the room raised their hands. They were the men who’d grumbled as Ali lowered himself to the floor. He hadn’t stirred since and they’d pressed their ears to his chest and smacked his face gently before they realized this was their morning to carry a body to the door. A path opened in the room for the men carrying Ali’s body. The guard pointed outside and the men obeyed. They knew what they were about to do and lowered the body to the ground. As they blinked in the sunlight, they said nothing in the shared misery of having a body at their feet. They hadn’t learned much about the boy except that, despite his youth, he was as troubled and worried as every other man in the room. A man with a shovel on each shoulder came across the compound. The two men lifted the body from the ground and followed the man with the shovels to a flat patch of earth on the other side of the compound.
A man with a ledger in his hand stood on the flat patch of earth as he waited for the body. He was gray-haired and dressed in a suit, his tie in a tight knot despite the heat. Death, he believed, demanded this. The body was lithe, still more sleep than death in the submissive arms and legs, the swaying of the head in time to the scuffing footsteps of the men carrying their burden. The men lowered Ali to the ground. The man with the ledger turned the pages and began to write a physical description of the body. He was a man given to thoughts of divine reckoning and acts of kindness even to the dead. No one asked the men and women pulled from their boats or the sea itself their names or the names of their children and the places they’d come from despite his request this be done. It was an insult to the dead to have nothing to write in his ledger but hair and eye color, the presence of scars and his guess about age.
When the grave was dug, the men were told to wrap Ali in a sheet before lowering him into the ground. When Ali was in the ground, the men gently sifted soil from their shovels over the body. When the body was covered, they heaved shovelfuls of earth into the grave until it was full and smoothed the dirt with the backs of their shovels.
A new man with his own ledger came to the grave later in the afternoon. A slab of fresh cement rested on top of the grave. He opened his ledger and turned its pages. When he was satisfied he was on the right page, he took a stick from his pocket and etched the number “38” in the cement. He flung the stick aside, made an entry in his ledger and closed it. He turned from the grave and walked back to the compound above the sea.