‘I Have Been a Stranger in a Strange Land’
– Fiction by Pat Mullarkey –
First Place Winner of the Dreamers 2021 Stories of Migration, Sense of Place and Home Contest
Tiny hands wave, grab at the air. Elle moves closer to the Styrofoam container. There is no one else on the beach as the sun falls into the horizon. Pinks, oranges, grays streak across the sky like an artist in the throes of inspiration. Scattered across the sands are plastic water bottles, lifejackets, sandals, flip-flops, and ripped fishing nets. Elle does one more visual sweep of the beach. No one. But there in the midst of the forgotten detritus sits a white Styrofoam cooler with tiny brown fingers sprouting up, reaching for something.
Somewhere between Libya and Italy a rubber boat drifts in the Mediterranean. The sea of antiquity, the path of a modern-day Exodus. But there is no pillar of cloud in the day and fire at night to follow. Instead, only the brutal handoffs by smugglers. Each a pretend Moses. Then the bottom feeders vanish when there is nothing left to take.
The high noon sky of milky, faded blue presses down on a watery expanse. A smattering of hands reach out and up to grab for something. Bodies pressed against one another, only a few glimpses of bright orange lifejackets are visible. The boat stares back with many eyes. Some closed in prayer, others close to fainting. A few people imagine childhood homes or hold photos of a small Italian port. Some cry. Some are confused. Here and there a determined face, jaw jutted out in defiance. A last stand of anger and human dignity. Hands, arms reaching out and up. The last vestiges of hope on faces full of despair.
The rubber craft was mostly underwater when the rescue boat arrived. Thirty-three bedraggled refugees made it to shore with its help. Fifteen bodies pulled out of the water or difficult ones caught in a net.
Elle worked with three men and another woman when she first arrived about a year ago. The other woman, thirty-something, quit after four months. Linda said her stint in the Peace Corps hadn’t prepared her for the floating bodies and crying orphans. Two months later Arte went on a bender after a particularly gruesome death count and never showed up for work. That’s when the group of charities came up with the rotation plan. Some days in the water, others on the beach.
Tonight was Elle’s beach check and cleanup rotation. Usually there were two, but Theo was sick from some poorly cooked shrimp. They spent last night at a service for the recent dead refugees. There was a meal afterward. Her mind wandered as she ate to an arcane practice during medieval times. You could take away a dead person’s sins by hiring someone to “eat” them in a ritual meal. The “sin-eater” took on the transgressions of the deceased, who then rose to heaven. Typically, it was a poor person who did it for the food and drink. The most vulnerable twice damned, once for being poor and again by the guilt of others. Who eats the sins of a society that ignores the plight of the refugees?
Elle suddenly realized the tiny hands were gone. She started to run to the container as the tide came in. Soon the sea and more trash would wash up, making the cooler vulnerable. Instead of Moses in the rushes, a baby hidden by 21st century debris. The container moved with the incoming sea, pushed back and forth with the rhythm of the tide. Elle ran into the water, grabbed it and pulled it toward the beach. The tide tugged at her and the container. She looked inside as soon as she was anchored on a dry roll of sand.
The first bright stars led by Venus the pretender dotted the velvety blue twilight. A gentle breeze carried wisps of sand. Eyes looked up and the baby girl started to cry. Elle took the tiny body in her arms and cooed comforting sounds as she gently rocked. There was a small, almost empty plastic bottle and a note, both cradled in the baby’s imprint left on the towel. Elle recognized a few words as Nigerian, but one word stood out. A name, Adaora. Elle knew its meaning, “daughter of all.”
A tear or two ran down Elle’s face as she held Adaora. It surprised her. She thought her tear ducts stopped working six months ago. She walked to the car to take Adaora to the small medical clinic. The young woman wondered what forced this baby girl on such a long exodus. It’s the neediest who dance around the golden calf. The most exploited, the most persecuted, the most helpless. All pray to be delivered to a place with open hearts. Will this be Adaora’s promised land? Elle and Adaora passed an old man sitting along the road eating a melon. He looked up with a watery smile. “Can I see the baby?” he said with the gentleness of a shepherd.
About the Author – Pat Mullarkey
Pat Mullarkey is a retired newspaper editor living in Spain. She has completed Leashes, a novel about friends, dogs, and a crime in 1963 Chicago. “I Have Been a Stranger in a Strange Land” Exodus 2:22 is her first venture into short stories.
Did you like this story by Pat Mullarkey? Then you might also like:
**This story by Pat Mullarkey received First Place in the 2021 Stories of Migration, Sense of Place & Home Contest.
To check out all the fiction available on Dreamers, visit our fierce fiction section.
Like reading print publications? Consider subscribing to the Dreamers Magazine!