Julie K. Walker
I am not a refugee.
The word alone leaves a bad taste in my mouth, the same way it clearly does in his, this young man pontificating in an angry half-whisper to those closest to him, who clearly wish they had chosen a different seatmate. He is not even supposed to be here, he says, not hiding his tone of despair. He has a fiancée, a dog, a blog, a garden, a life. No one here can say any different, but they don't say. What for?
We are all stuck with each other in this floating husk of a ship, which moves at a matronly pace through the water, as if she knows there is nowhere we need to be or to go.
The stench of sweat and dried blood rubbing all up in our noses, blocking our ability to think to the deck, the floor, the walls, not even allowing for a moment of reprieve. There is no escaping the smell of despair; it is not ephemeral like perfume. The nose remains assaulted. After days and nights and days on this ship, I wonder, did I ever wear perfume? Did I groom myself? Wash my hair? I can remember, but there is no feeling, no more sense of reality than in a book or a script or a news report of ourselves, others like us who may as well be us, dirty and hungry, just a mass of faces without agency beyond survival. Unreality mixed with mixed commentary, some pity, mostly revulsion. Talk should wash off, and leave no trace but it is sticky, and marks us. I can feel the words, the glances adhering to me, leaving blotches on my skin which draw more attention, making clear to even a casual observer that I am no longer a person.
The ship banks, and groans like it is tired of living. I wish this hold had windows—I should like so much to see the stars. They used to comfort me, at home. My children bought me a telescope one time, believing that since I spent so many of my nights gazing skywards, I wanted to be closer, know more, almost touch. So I learned more, and the more I learned the more I wished to be among them, away from the day-to-day, away from the fighting the fear and the fire. But choice is not choice when it comes, and when it was made clear that I was deceiving myself, I sold the telescope. There was no joy in looking through it alone.
Clank, clank, clack—the ship's docking clamps attach to something, jarring us, we are blind in here, disoriented, angry. We wait, as the lights flicker and the children cry. The smell seems to get stronger, and I am gripped, called, driven to run to the door and bang on it, scream to be let out, to go back home to my home, my house, my kitchen. Even the bombed-out wreck is better than not knowing. This is not true, but truth is not a feeling. When truth approaches, you must bow and brace for impact.
The door flies open with a creak and the guards leak in, herding us out, out into the hall, into the airlock, where the air tastes of sand and sick.
As we march along, shoulder to shoulder, like unwilling conscripts, I glance up and see the stars through the panels covering the ceiling. They appear and vanish with every step, but I can see them, the constellations, the bright ones, the darker ones, all of them. And they are wrong. Not the stars I could see from home. I feel betrayed.
We are herded onto a platform, and one of us sheep cries out as he sees the drop between us and the floor. It is the young man, and he stumbles away from the edge, but the rest of us surge forward, crowding him further to the brink. He whimpers and flails, and as I am pushed closer to him, I see his eyes go blank. My hand flies out to catch his arm, just as he turns to take one more step.
"Don't," I tell him, with a conviction I do not feel, praying he will not ask me why not. But he shrugs and goes limp, the embers growing cold. He is young, and the way he twist his mouth is just like Raol did, and the thought burns, burns, until I force it away. Even the memory of my son should not be brought here.
I move around him, so he is enclosed in a wall of people, and stand between him and the edge. My hand remains stubbornly on his arm.
Down, down, down goes the platform, wide as a lake, enough to hold all the hundreds of us easily. We are at sea here, as we will be down there, among thousands of beds, all crammed in a giant room. From high above, the others are like black ants, crawling ponderously between the camping beds, no queen, no plan, no goals. I watch the ebb and flow, there aren't any gaps. Will there even be any space for us, the cargo that no one ordered and no one wants?
I am given a bed by the kitchens, fortuitous placement, maybe I will not go hungry this time. I want to find the young man and talk to him, shake the shells out of his head, but there is no sign of him. This room smells like dying, but only as an afterthought. The foremost scent is the tangy adherent smell of despair. I can feel it seeping through the ragged colourless clothes—all that is left of my good travelling gear—and into me. I would like to run out, away from these crowds and the swamp of depression, but I cannot. The doors are shut, and there is nowhere else. I can put my head down, sit on my camp bed, stiff and crusted with overuse, probably salvaged from a dump. I cover the worst with my blanket and try to sleep, but the lamp on the ceiling, a merciless artificial sun with all of the maliciousness and none of the warmth that a star might offer, stares down at me, making my face throb in the rhythm of some unsympathetic music I am not privy to.
The restlessness of the crowds now makes sense to me, they are the agitated agonised twitching of the half-dead, the left-for-dead, the remnants of something that no one wants to think about anymore.
Refugee is a hideous word, suggesting tragedy at best, and at worst, a nuisance—an additional mouth to feed, a dangerous burden which could bite back at any moment. Very few have snapped at the hand that fed them, but their brief transgressions cast a shadow across all of us, leaving us in the dark. We understand, but wish they did not all the same.
The days and nights and days slide by in here, leaving no footprints in their wake. The calendar on the wall has no meaning, and the longer I stare at it, the more I wonder if it ever did. It's nothing but a jumble of numbers, one of millions of arbitrary ways to make sense of the passage of time. An anxious choice, I used to think, with seconds that remind us with every breath that we are reaching our last. Why not measure time in swirls of colour, or music that changes subtly as the days pass? It would not be practical, but what do I care about practical anymore? At least that way, I could be distracted by time, and not angered by it.
People die in here all the time, and the bodies are removed without piety, only a sense of duty. If they have friends and family, there are scuffles, demands for religious rights, but they are disregarded and left in time's dust. Like the young man, the families are still in denial. Don't they know that we left our rights back in our bombed-out homes? When we avoided death, we voided our rights. Our gladness to be not dead should trump any further indignities, is what this silent rhetoric says.
The young man is sick, and I go and see him. He is dirty pale, he matches the walls of this container, his breathing shallow and his breath sour like old wine. I know the symptoms. He is quiet, only murmuring a response once in a while, all bravado fled. I wish back his anger, his passionate insistence on his own importance, but it has dribbled away, to be trodden into the floor by countless listless feet. It left a gap in him you can almost see, now filling with disease. He is not quarantined, the guards just send a doctor. So young that I could almost be her grandmammy, a smooth face creased with care, but without the wear and tear and lifelessness in all those around her. She has not been forced to flee, this sweet-faced child, and we envy her for it. The young man has no hope, but she stays with him, day after day after day. We ask if she has no other patients, she says none that need her like he does.
When the young man dies, she weeps, but quietly. I would like to, but I left my tears behind, so far behind I can no longer remember where. My grief is dry, and scratching at the surface only raises a cloud of indifference, which hurts my lungs and chest.
The young man is carted away, the young doctor stays. She inspects children and those grown, helping where she can, offering words where she cannot. One day, a man whose face is half-eaten by wrinkles asks her what we can do for her.
She says she wants for nothing, but to share our story with others. The story of people, what it was like for them, to flee, to run, to wait.
So we tell her.
Julie K. Walker is currently pursuing an M.A. in Literature from the University of Vienna. She writes short stories and longer ones, as well as TV and game scripts. Some of her work is forthcoming in Northern Light. She lives in Vienna with her husband and two cats, and works as a news editor.