HE HELD the shell close to his lips and gently whispered into its cool, alabaster whorls. “The light is brilliant here. It is so, so bright – like the sun is too close to the earth.” It wasn’t working. He pressed his mouth tighter to the shell, so he could feel the hard ridges worn over thousands of years by surf and sun - so his breath made it hot and clammy inside. “This is all here for you, wake up, open your eyes.”

 

Adnan tried to concentrate, to shut out the cries like strangled goats, the “caw” of scavenging gulls and the endless whirl of waves, and focus on this small, quiet thing he held in his hands. He whispered and whispered till his voice was hoarse. And then through the hoarseness he shouted.

 

Between choked breaths and sobs he screamed into the tiny cavity where a mollusc once took shelter – safe from the world and all its evils. “My boy,” he called, “my boy.” But it would not work. The little shell, so perfectly imperfect, as if crafted by the hand of Allah himself, was not a little shell at all. It was a little ear. And that little ear was attached to a little head, crowned with a shock of black hair. And that little head was attached to a little body, covered in tiny shorts and a tiny t-shirt: sopping wet, as if they had absorbed the whole sea. As his baby boy grew stiff in his arms, Adnan watched the Red Cross volunteers charging towards the water without fear – nearly crashing into those from the boat who still had energy left to run. How could they do it? How could they so willingly go toward that body, which consumes little children and old men without discrimination? Which swallows a generation, a future of a family, like it is nothing.

 

Someone was talking to Adnan, but he could not hear them. They draped a tinfoil blanket over his shoulders and moved on. He took the blanket off and wrapped it around Elyas – carefully, as if he were only asleep. His chubby hand – which had once grabbed Adnan’s own with such force – was now limp: a pale, fat star incongruous on this sun-drenched beach. Adnan tucked it into the blanket.Swaddled in its gold and silver folds, Elyas, until recently aged eight months, looked like a new-born. He glistened and shone in the sun like a nugget of gold in a murky pond. Adnan wished he could slip him in his shirt pocket – like a watch or medallion – and keep him there forever, the heavy weight next to his heart reminding him of his only son.

 

Even in his grief, Adnan realised that he could not carry the dead body of his baby boy any further into Europe – that his leg of the journey ended here, and he must be buried soon.

 

As the drama of the day still played out around him, Adnan stole away along the beach, until he came to a small cove studded with sea snails. There was a rock pool in the cove, and the water in it – filtered away from the sea – looked so fresh and pure that he almost scooped up a handful to drink. Then he remembered only an hour ago, gulping down the seawater like air as he half-drowned, the salt stinging his throat like a thousand hot peppers. He looked down at Elyas, and thought of his little lungs filled with the stuff: like sacks straining with the weight of too much rice.

 

He did not drink the water. Instead, he unwrapped Elyas from his sweet-wrapper blanket and performed Ghusl: the washing of the body before burial. Using the sparkling water from the rock pool he started with his right ear – the little shell he had whispered into – and worked his way down. Bathing had always been his wife’s job, and Adnan – although familiar with his chubby cheeks and plump hands – felt like he was seeing his son’s body for the first time. He did not know that there was a small, pink birthmark the shape of a chickpea on his left thigh, or that his hair actually parted in two different directions. A double crown, fit for his little prince.

 

The beauty of drowning, he thought - if there can ever be beauty in something so grotesque - is that it leaves the features as they were. There is no blood to mar -no cuts or bruises or indents. The sea had pulled Elyas under, killed him, and spit him back out with the ease of someone cleaving the sweet flesh from a cherry with their tongue and discarding the unwanted pit.

 

When Adnan had finished washing Elyas three times – smoothing the sparkling water over his blemish-free body – he performed Kafan, the shrouding. He did not have three white sheets. The blanket would have to do. Holding Elyas to his chest with one hand, Adnan carefully smoothed out the blanket on the sand, before lowering his son onto it – as if for a nappy change. He placed his left hand on his chest – so fragile, like a little bird – and covered it with his right, as if he were in prayer. He kissed each of his son’s eyelids and wrapped him tightly in the blanket without lingering. For who would want to linger on such a horrible scene?

 

Keeping an eye on the precious package to ensure it did not float away, Adnan began to dig a small hole in the sand with his hands. It was difficult as the sand was damp and did not come away easily – as if the grains were a family clinging to one another, refusing to be parted. He dug and dug like the dog that he was, stealing off by himself to hide something he did not want anyone else to touch.

 

Finally, the grave was made.

 

Adnan gently placed Elyas inside – the hole so small that his urge to creep into it with him was utterly unrealistic. Slowly, he covered his boy. His boy who only this morning had cried and cried with so much might, as if the whole world must know of his arrival into Greece’s waters.

 

Each “thud” - the clumps of sodden sand raining down on his son’s perfect form -sent a sparkle of pain through Adnan’s body so acute he thought he would diehimself. The nugget of gold was disappearing, but this was a treasure that would never be the same if Adnan came back to unbury it. He tried to remember his religion, to remember that Elyas would go to the Garden with Allah. Still, his tears poured onto the sand, casting damper patches on the little unmarked grave that his son now occupied.

 

Adnan looked around for something to place on top of it, so people would know it was there and not touch and defile it. In the furthest corner of the rock pool he spotted a perfect white shell. He grasped it, letting the spines dig into his palm and leave their impressions. As he turned it over, he saw that the inside was a deep pink that shaded lighter – like a rose petal, dotted with specks of water after light rainfall. He kissed the shell firmly and placed it at the top of the grave, before lying down upon it to cry.

 

Adnan did not move again until the sun had dropped out of the sky, and begun to sink into the dark recesses of the ocean. Everything was golden. He stood, his limbs aching from being curled up on his child’s grave. One side of him was covered in sand. He shook it off, said a final prayer to his son, and moved back away to the beach, leaving the rock pool cemetery behind.

 

As the sea finally swallowed the sun, a small but powerful wave washed into the cove, sweeping up multi-coloured rocks and dappled sea snails and the little white and pink shell that marked where Elyas slept. It bobbed for a moment, then sank: a tiny, perfect ear listening to the world from the bottom of the ocean.

THE WATER BABY

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Poetry

February 2017

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