By Katja L. Kaine
Once I was not the person I am.
I had little. I was poor. But I was not unhappy. The days were hot and dusty, the food simple but good. I had a tin roof to sleep under and a school with brick walls.
English was my favourite. The language, the people, the tea. The whole ‘kit and caboodle’ I would say and my friends would giggle at the funny sounds.
Abra the English, that is what they called me.
I brought a pencil and old newspapers to the movies – that was really just an old TV on a table in a shack - and I would write down all the words I didn’t know so I could learn them later. I got a reputation as the one who could translate the movie for you. If there was a lot of talking, people would look at me, and I would tell them what was said. Or sometimes I would think of something even better.
I always wanted to move to England, even before the trouble started.
The Harbingers come. They say we are either with them or against them. If we are against them, we die.
Many, many people leave my country. We travel like a river that has burst its banks.
They are not happy about this, these countries who are our neighbours. They say we are dangerous, that we will cause trouble, hurt people. We try to tell them we are here because we do not want to hurt people. If we wanted to hurt people we would stay at home.
But they do not listen. Or they do not care. I do not know if it is one thing or the other thing. I do not know if it matters.
So we move on. We become nomads, a people with no home.
The next place we stop to rest, they want to put us in camps. Perhaps you think this is a fine idea, and we should be grateful for somewhere safe to live. Let me tell you about these camps.
You have a tent with a broken zip, so you can never close it. You cannot keep out the cold, and you have only a certain number of blankets, so you must pile your clothes on your children to keep them warm at night. You cannot keep out the bugs. Have you ever woken up in the morning and picked insects from the skin of your children? The insects will crawl all over you all the night. You have no privacy. You share a one-room tent with your husband and children, and inches away on each side are more tents with more families. You feel too covered in filth. You cannot have a conversation. You cannot even talk to someone in a private way. And because of the cold and the bugs and the dust and the dirt you can never clean, no matter how hard you scrub, your children get sick. So you must carry them across the camp to the medicine tents, where you must wait for the whole day, or half the day if you are lucky. And when you see the doctor, they say, yes. I know what medicine your child needs. But we have none of it left. I am sorry. You must go home now. So you take your sick child back to your cold, filthy tent. There is nothing you can do to help them.
Living in a refugee camp is like having to die very slowly.
If it does not kill you in your body, it takes you the other way as your mind rots inside your skull and you don’t care if you live or die. Then it is better to stay at home and die quickly.
I did not want to go to the camps. We had to keep moving. Travel further away.
This is the time I start praying to God.
There are no trains, no buses going to other countries. Not for us. Everybody knows this. The other countries close their doors. They say you cannot come in.
So when you look into the eyes of your children, look into their faces and know that they bring to you more joy than anything else in this world, know you would do anything to keep them safe, you know you have to pay the man with the black mask. You have to pay him everything you have, and then you can go on his boat in the dark.
So we pay. Every last coin we have, for five tickets. Me, my husband, my three children. My oldest is six, my youngest not even two years old. Too young for such danger. Children should cry because they do not want to go to bed. Because their stomachs hurt because they ate too much honeycake. Not because they are sick and cold from night chills and starving from having nothing but damp biscuits to eat for days.
I lost friends on these boats before. Three of them. One of my friends had an infant only six months old. My friend could swim, but she was trying to save her husband, who could not, and her child. The waves, and the dark, it was too much.
So yes, I am not stupid. I know it is dangerous. But it is dangerous for maybe one, maybe two hours. At home it is dangerous all the time. Until you are dead.
Death is in every direction.
The boat is worse than your nightmare. So many people crush in so you cannot move without standing on someone’s foot. Screaming, vomiting, children crying and covering their eyes. If you are in the middle you can’t breathe. If you are at the edges you might get pushed out. If you complain the men in charge beat you. Not everybody makes it, but by the grace of God and thanks to my prayers, my family places our feet on the mud of Europe.
In my country the world consumes the people, but in this place people consume the world.
Europe is supermarkets with rows of colourfully packaged processed food with abundance, water piped to your home, cars that are clean inside and out and never rattle, trains that shoot like arrows. Cheap coffee in expensive cardboards cups with your name written on. Ice cream, soft seats, songbirds, plastic bins with wheels.
But this is not our Europe.
Our Europe is metal barriers and heavy armoured policemen in long black masks. It is white people looking at us with nothing, and clutching their riches closer to their chests. People spitting at us, or simply looking away.
Parents collapse from exhaustion, their children crawl into the street, scraping up crumbs from the tarmac, cracking their teeth on the crumbs of concrete they pick by accident. Screeching in the purest of innocent agonies as blood-pinked saliva trickles from the corners of their mouths and shards of tooth cut their lips.
And what about my beloved England? It is further away from me than ever. Not only in steps across land, but its heart and mind, I learn very quickly. England does not love me.
They ask me to translate the newspapers, my new community. They see the big photographs of themselves with tears and pleading and outstretched arms and the big black letters so thick on the thin paper above them.
I tell them I do not understand the words. How can I tell them? They believe that people with so much would be happy to share a little. To offer sanctuary, as their kind God said they should. To be our saviours.
How can I tell them that these saviours call them parasites? That they say we swarmed, thinking only of what we could get for free, of how we could steal what was rightfully theirs. We want only things the earth gives for free. Food. Water. To sleep at night without the worry that someone might put a machete to your throat. Or that they will cut your children in half, or riddle the mattress of their cot with bullets.
Will you go to bed without fear tonight? If yes, you are lucky.
My children pile on top of my husband in the tent. I look at my family and they look already dead to me, and then I know. They will die in front of my eyes. Every last one. And I will be helpless to stop it.
I walk among the heaps of half-alive bodies lining the tent streets, needing to go somewhere to breathe. Needing to find space, find escape. But there is none.
Only bodies, crushed. The layered, dirt streaked sweat of weeks of travel. The blood of barely-survived attacks from inside the body and outside. The exhalations of fear and desperation. No way forward and no way back. No way in, no way out.
Discarded newspapers haunt and taunt me like fluttering wraiths, their words, their pictures, their messages washing the brains of the rich, clean people. Telling them to be afraid. My English is my curse. I do not wish to understand the words that surrounded us. I become ashamed of my nickname. I am glad there is nobody left to remember it.
I watch the crowds come to gawk at us through the bars. Tell us to go home.
There is one different. A little child with her mother, too young to read. She holds a toy rabbit, with long floppy ears and buttons for eyes. Her own eyes are wide and round to see humans such as us. She cocks her head and asks her mother a question. The young mother’s eyes fill with tears and she nods.
The little girl pushes the rabbit through the wire fence, crushing its soft head for a moment, and calls to a boy about her age on our side. The boy looks up, at first not understanding. Then he comes to take the rabbit. He clutches it to his chest and the little girl smiles. The mother takes a picture with her phone.
The papers tumble by. The girl and her mother turn away to go home.
I stand, dizzy, like God has just whispered in my ear.
I am not helpless. I can save them.
After I know my choice I weep for days. My husband does not ask what is wrong. He looks around. My children do not ask what is wrong either. They are too tired. Too old.
When I have cried all the water from my body and all that is left is stone, I take my youngest daughter to the water’s edge. Little more than a baby.
“We must give them a vision,” I whisper to her.
I hold her against my chest, hugging her so tightly she squeaks. I find some more tears, from somewhere.
Then I wade into the water and lower her in. I hold her down.
Then I let her go.
The next day there is a new picture printed on the papers.
Those people who looked away now stand up. Those that stayed silent now shout. Those who shut their doors pound on the doors of the powerful.
The dam opened a crack.
The floods forced through.
A picture was enough.
Katja L Kaine lives in Yorkshire, England where she develops novel writing software and writes novels and short stories. You can read her short fiction, essays and rants at www.katjalkaine.com as well as various print and online publications. On “Abra's Price”, Kaine says, “I wrote this story as a pressure valve to release some of the heartbreak and frustration I felt at true events that took place at the height of the refugee crisis and the depressing attitudes that seemed to pervade the narrative.”