The Writers Bureau Short Story Competition 2019
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Short Story Competition 2018

Michela Tamma

3rd Prize – Michela Tamma with:


The woman lies on her side, her head resting upon a green shawl. Motionless on the floor and yet tense, as though she were trying to restrain the rocking of the boat by virtue of her stillness. Karim too sits on the floor of the cockpit, his back against the wall. A captain without a chair. The old engine is dead. The lantern casts all manners of swinging shadows around him but the darkest shadow of all must be the place between her thighs: she’s pulled down her leggings, it would be easy for a hand to follow the contour of her leg, overcoming the feeble resistance of her dress, but before Karim’s imaginary exploration is complete the woman raises herself on an elbow and throws up onto the floor. A glistening, transparent puddle.

“Your sea is cross with me,” she says.

“You’re not used to it, that’s all.”

She mutters some words in an unfamiliar African language and curls up. The next contraction is a live current that forces her to go on all four, and if Karim could bring himself to touch her swollen abdomen he would feel this fetus. How it moves inside her. Instead he recoils, ambushed by an acute sense of embarrassment, as if during consensual intercourse he had caught himself thinking: this woman is not beautiful.

The Fatma continues to roll, slowly and methodically pounded by the night swell. Her ordeal sounds painful and irreversible because metal should not creak this way - it’s not wood - but in fact the Fatma isn’t frail. She’s accustomed to the exhausting mating rhythms of the Mediterranean sea.

“I’m bleeding,” the woman says.
Using the hem of her dress he dabs a rivulet that’s reached her ankle; the rest escapes and forms a small pool. The rags he could give her are too dirty. Oil, sweat. Salt.

“Is this normal?” he asks.

“I don’t know.”

Fewer and fewer morsels feed his fantasy: that they are alone on the Fatma, sea and sky as witnesses; that he’s worthy. She could be the girl in his school who used to like him, quietly. The plain girl who always knew the answer to a difficult question. She could be his bride; her wedding dress fashioned out of seaweed-green cotton, illuminated by fields of sunflowers.

“Something’s burning,” she says.

Karim stands up: an object is ablaze above deck, a bundle on a stick – fabric, clothes or perhaps a blanket that’s been set on fire. “Higher, keep it higher,” he shouts in French. Underneath the orange glow he can see faces: his human cargo. Men, some women; they fill up the deck, the prow, the bridge roof over his head. A single sprawled-out creature, whose many limbs sway in rhythm with the current like the tentacles of an anemone. There is a murmur of excitement, the pathetic chatter of hope which always accompanies the return of light after a spell of darkness. French, Arabic, infinite dialects, it doesn’t matter anymore: is it difficult to comprehend? The journey ends here.

“They’ve lit a torch,” he finally says.

“Do you think someone will come for us?”

He turns to look at her. She’s gone back to lying on her side. If he answered her questions truthfully, he might scare her. Shatter the confidence she seems to have placed in him: Karim’s presence makes her feel safe, she doesn’t want anyone else. She believes he’s the person sent to help her. After all Karim has stayed, that means God hasn’t abandoned her. Karim would like to believe it too. Something about her minute feet, the way she hugs herself as though nobody else would; it makes him hurt inside. This is how a husband must feel. He lies down next to her.

“What are you going to call your baby?”

“Tell me your name,” she whispers.
Smiling at him. She may be delirious; too young to know what Karim really is. Perhaps he’s imagining everything, perhaps he’s suffering from a novel kind of sickness that affects the experienced sailor exclusively and confounds only part of his senses, so that his hallucinations appear down-to-earth and sensible, corroborated by delusions of lucidity.

There is commotion out on deck, the first long shrieks. The torch is no longer a discreet entity suspended over their heads. The flames have descended upon their bearers, nibbling at skin, penetrating clothes, climbing strands of hair. Children. Somewhere are children screaming. “Overboard, overboard, quick!” Karim yells but his voice is one of a multitude, gobbled up by the wind before it’s drifted far enough to be heard. As the crowd shrinks away from the bodies that have already caught fire, the Fatma heels to starboard. The floor tilts underneath them. In the middle of a fresh contraction the woman gazes up at him, confused. Karim takes her hand: clammy, small. A moment later his boat has capsized.

How nice it feels to be immersed in complete darkness. Water like the cold tongue of the devil, removing the last garments of sweat, sealing up his eardrums. The residual warmth that still shrouds their bodies slowly surrenders to the new temperature. At first he can feel the young woman’s legs thrashing, expending too much energy like a child terrified of the sea; then she too slows down to receive the gift of underwater buoyancy.

His own lack of survival instinct pleases him. His hand idly explores the texture of darkness: fingers flexed, like a fin it captures the internal currents, the cold streams and their deliciously warm pockets. If he opened his mouth right now and gulped down some of the rich liquid that surrounds him he would be a baby who feeds on his mother’s essence, experiences the secret taste of love. He could fall asleep. Lulled by a liquid universe in which he floats like a starfish. A metallic tang invades his taste buds as if a thick vein of the sea had been cut open, releasing a velvety flower of blood whose roots reach out into his mouth. The Fatma is nursing him; this stubborn old boat he saved from death in the sand. Because nothing is like the bond between two orphans and still, somewhere deep inside, in the place where his heart should be, her taste offends him. A psychotic mother, she lowers her bosom towards her child and at the pinnacle of trust, when the baby places a possessive hand on her breast and begins to suckle, she poisons his soft guts with the milk she has allowed to become infected.

Eventually, his only reality is a mad sense of panic. With his arms flailing either side of him, he tries to detect a hard surface; right or left, whichever is closer, he’s not sure which way is up, hands itching to find the opening, the thick liquid membrane that will deliver them outside. The back of his head hits against something and for an instant a detonation of pain makes him lose his bearings but once he’s found the exit it’s surprisingly easy to return inside to collect the woman. There is ample time, it seems. The pressure upon his lungs relents, the water becomes increasingly agitated. There are others, he can feel their kicks all around him. A gust of wind slaps his face as he takes the first gasp of air: tremendous, excruciating. A wave lifts him like a buoy, to meet a crest whose froth shimmers with a white light of its own, and when he plummets back down into the depth of its trough his legs tingle with the exquisite pain of a thousand pins and needles. The surface of the water is littered with people like a myriad of wet ants. A pink sliver of daylight appears at the edge of the night sky. She too finds it beautiful, meaningful; he knows that. He turns towards her but the woman is not by his side; he swims around looking for her, like a fool. He dives under but sees nothing. He doesn’t even know her name, otherwise he would shout it. He searches for her everywhere. If he were his wife, he would look for her with the same determination, his eyes burning with the right to cry these tears he doesn’t own.

The first to arrive are two Italian fishermen on their tiny boat. They hurry to pull up those who have the strength to tread water. Other boats arrive. Karim is picked up like everyone else, anonymously. In turn, he tries to pull up some of those floating faces: the woman on the beach, who promised she would pay him extra money if he didn’t touch her; she was bluffing, she had no money. No matter how much he leans over the edge of the boat she won’t take his hand. She watches him instead. The horizon is brighter with the first light of dawn and she can see him very well now. Her face dips in and out of the water a few more times before she allows herself to sink, like an ebony statue. Maybe God is a woman after all.

On board the Italian navy ship, sitting with a thermal blanket around his shoulders, Karim drinks tea from a polystyrene cup that’s lost all its heat. The survivors are slumped on the floor, exhausted, disappointed to see him fed into the funnel of safety by the indiscriminate good will of emergencies. If they’d had the chance they’d have yanked him off the rescuers’ boat and dragged him to the bottom of the sea where he belongs.

He failed to locate the pregnant woman. One of the rescue divers found her body inside the Fatma, which now rests on the seabed with the indolence of an ancient fish. Her story circulates like a tribal legend. This inert lump they discovered in the folds of her leggings: the newborn in its entire, minute perfection; still attached to its mother by the umbilical cord. The release of death must have opened the way for the fetus to slide out into the liquid womb of the sea.

He sees them. Inside the pristine quiet of the Fatma, rocked by the underwater currents, the fetus trying to feed oxygen back into his mother’s belly, curious about her shape.

They say one of the rescuers cradled the baby boy in his arms as though it were his own.


About the Author

Michela Tamma began writing poems and short stories while growing up in Venice, Italy. She holds a degree in English Language and Literature and has lived abroad most of her adult life. Her writing often explores the encounter between different cultures; those precious moments when interpersonal barriers collapse and what remains is the fragility of being human. Voyage commemorates the events surrounding the 2013 Lampedusa shipwreck, in which nearly 400 migrants lost their lives.


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