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The Sea Child
Zerin had never seen the sea before. Nor had her mother, her mother’s mother, or her mother’s grandmother. The sea was a thing that might have rolled and dipped or perhaps it sat like the face of a mirror hard and cool, but it made no difference to Zerin. No difference at all until, one day it rolled and frothed its way to her doorstep in the form of a small letter, heavily stamped and clearly well travelled. Zerin had never before seen the sea and yet she recognized it when it came to her. It was addressed to her husband who had received such things before, but this time she knew it was different. This time the sea was at her doorstep and it had brought with it a war that was worlds away, in places she had never heard of. This time, she didn’t need to wait for the fragrant evening winds to tell her that when the tide pulled out, it would be taking her with it. This time she knew.
Her husband did not want to go, for he did not recognize the sea. Instead he tried to fight it, rushing from office to office with letters of excuse, fighting a battle that no man could possibly win. Zerin knew his attempts would be fruitless yet she did not try to stop him, for she knew he would not listen until he had been defeated. She only starched and ironed his uniform and gathered up her mother’s gold necklace in a shiny red cloth in preparation to follow the waves. He came home that night slumped and dejected and found her waiting for him with a plate food and a tray of the most succulent fruits in the market, lovingly peeled and sliced into sweet patterns, their juices running together to form small pools of sunlight in the corners of the tray.
“Three days.” he said. “The ship leaves in three days.” She smiled sadly but she knew it had to be done and they spent that night under the largest window in the house, watching a moon rise that would only rise for them in that window twice more before they left it behind for new windows, a new horizon.
The three days passed quickly in a flurry of leather bound trunks and and empty closets, swept up in a constant torrent of advice from aunts who knew each secret of the universe and were only too anxious to impart their worldly wisdom before these children left their clutches. Zerin nodded and smiled through it all, but on the morning of the departure, she rose early and left the snoring old women in their beds to kiss the fragrant winds farewell and watch for the last time as they blew the sun to its place in the sky and inhaled for the last time their smell of the morning, of the fine brown dust that was its own entity mingled with the soft smoke of the early fires. Zerin said goodbye.
The ship was vast and putrid thing, cold and dark wherever the tiny portholes could not lend their watery light. The sea heaved and rolled against its black slippery sides and Zerin’s stomach heaved and rolled along with it. Each time she struggled her way to the deck, she could feel the wind growing colder and colder around her, the sea becoming darker, ever more rapacious and impatient to sweep her away. Her husband was lost in a fog of passports and identification papers, a virtual ocean of black ink, just as unfriendly as its natural counterpart. Zerin’s carefully packed fruits soon began to rot and she was forced to throw each one overboard, standing at the railing watching them float and bob until they were miles gone. At night, she could no longer watch the moon rise and instead lay on her bunk, shivering in her bright cotton clothes, listening to her husband breath the smell of decay in and out, in and out, until she wept, soft silent tears that rolled down the curve of her nose and fell through the cracks in the wooded floor, flowing away to join the sea and help it carry her away.
“Marseilles!” It was a cry that echoed through the bunks in the belly of the ship, reverberating like the drums of home. Zerin’s husband threw a shawl around her shoulders and hurried her up to the deck so they could see in the new light of the day the strange place they had come to, with the strange name whose vowels wrapped themselves around their tongues like targets within arms length that could not be hit. The gulls were screaming down at them triumphantly and the clouds parted in welcome, but Zerin still felt cold. As they got closer, she could see cobbles in the streets and little black cars. She could see women in small round hats and such high, high shoes that she felt some wonder at their ability to walk in them. A dock appeared and men in blue shirts shouting and waving. A ramp was hitched to the side of the ship and slowly, slowly everyone began to disembark. Zerin’s feet tapped impatiently and all the trunks and cases grew light in her arms as she thought of her feet touching land, of leaving behind the dank recesses of the ship. France was there now, there for her to enter and she was going.
Passports stamped and luggage processed, Zerin’s husband sat beside her in the wagon that had come to receive them. He held in his hand a small french dictionary he had bought for her but she did not care to read to it. No, her eyes were wide with curiosity at the tall lean houses made of bricks, at the market places they passed where the haggling was done over such different things, oddly shaped breads that were long and light, fat heavy wheels of cheeses that sat sweating on their trays, black oval shaped things that she later learned were oysters, a food of the sea. Zerin could not imagine how one would eat any of these yet all this and more she saw as the wagon traveled on and on until it came to a stop outside a walled compound with the French and British flags on it. The gates creaked open and a uniformed sentry saluted as the wagon rolled through coming to a halt in front of a small yellow house. There was a brown paper parcel on the doorstep without any indication of its sender, and within Zerin found a painting the likes of which she’d never seen. It was a portrait of the sea, of serene calm waters, of a thing so inviting and lovely that she could scarcely believe it was the same ravenous creature that had borne her so far from home. Just where water met sky, there was a tiny, tiny boat with a blood red sail, a miniscule beacon in the bed of blue.
At first, the days passed quickly for Zerin and she fluttered from room to room in the small yellow house, arranging and unpacking, lovingly adding small touches of her old home to her new one. She hung the portrait of the sea on the wall by her bed so she could look at it each time she turned that way. But when the last trunk had been unpacked and the final cupboard gently closed, invitations began to pour in.
“Major and Mrs. Malhan are cordially invited to the officer’s dinner…”
“The presence of Major and Mrs. Malhan is respectfully requested…”
“The Southern Compound extends a warm invitation to the Major and family…”
Zerin dressed herself carefully for all these occasions knowing that perhaps she might find friends among the ladies of the compound, but they did not understand her. She spoke no French and knew nothing of the latest silent films or penny romances. There was no small round hat on her head, nor high heels on her feet. Her clothes were too exotic and foreign and these pale skinned women in their knee length dresses greeted her with perfunctory smiles and meaningless kisses on the air above her cheeks. Zerin soon realized that the invitations were a mere formality, extended to all officers and their families yet still she tried to fit in. At the dinner parties she would examine the strange foods on her plate and try to replicate them at home, although nothing tasted good to her and she longed for the warm flatbreads of home and the old fruit trees that grew by her doorstep. Still, she tried to continue in her pursuit of friendship for she had become desperately lonely. Her husband had departed to a warfront days before and she noticed that the other men of the compound were also disappearing one by one. That left the women and herself. Entire days passed when she did not speak a word to anyone or leave the small yellow house. The social gatherings had ceased, and soon she only got up to walk to the post office to collect her husband’s letters or to buy food. The hours began to drip by in slow minutes which in turn slowed to seconds and the face of the clock turned into a leering pockmarked thing on the wall that mocked her efforts to speed it up. It was about this time that she felt the first small flutterings deep in the innermost sanctum of her body. At first she ignored it, but a week went by and she could ignore it no longer. Her body now held two hearts, one in her chest, the other in her womb.
The pregnancy jarred Zerin suddenly out of her stupor. She was not alone anymore and she could not afford to act as though she were. There were clothes to make, a cradle to buy. She began rummaging through her sewing bag, thinking endlessly of patterns and fabrics, colors and buttons. Her days were a blur of needles flashing in and out of cloth, of sweet anticipation. Each night, she put a hand on her belly trying to measure with the tips of her fingers how much larger it had gotten from the night before. She did not notice it at first, but the tiny boat with the blood red sail in the painting was getting larger and larger as well, leaving the distant horizon behind with every kick of the child in Zerin’s belly.
As Zerin’s belly grew, it became harder and harder to disguise it with loose clothing. Soon the women of the compound began to notice, and offerings began to appear on Zerin’s doorstep. Small hand knitted baby’s blankets and soft round caps edged with gentle sprays of lace that would not itch when worn. Zerin collected them all and put them in a box, offering a wordless appreciation of the gifts in her smile, finally feeling warm after the months of cold.
One night as she slept in her bed, the first pains struck her womb. She cried out, but she was alone and the neighbors could not hear her. The room was dark and suddenly very hot. The thick covers were stifling and she kicked and thrashed them out of the way. Sweat began to fall in small droplets down her cheekbones and the pains worsened. She turned head to wall and noticed that little blood red sail on the horizon was no longer so little. In fact, it was now blotting out the ocean almost entirely, a massive vermilion cloud billowing in the wind, billowing off the canvas, billowing into the room. She cried out again, for she was afraid of that vermilion cloud with its overpowering gusts, she was already so far from home, she did not want to be carried off again. And then the sea was there. Rushing, gushing, electrifingly blue, it poured and frothed it’s way from the frame of the painting, crashed its way through the vermilion sail and rolled in a victorius thunder beneath the bed rumbling and rising, rising rising, cooling, protecting, throwing small beads of spray into the air to ward off the heat, dancing in soft undulating waves that rocked the bed, catching the light of the moon and sprinkling her with it, kissing the air with its mist and perfuming it with its scent of fathomless places and rich white salt.
Her daughter of the sea, her Neera was born that night. At first she was still and silent, a small wrinkled body covered in blood. Zerin wept when she saw her, a lifeless thing, a hole in her world. But as the tears of the desolate mother fell on head of her stillborn child, the sea rose to meet them, and together they gently bathed the blood from the child’s body and entered its mouth and nose. The baby began to cough, her first breath of life, her first breath of many to come. Gazing down on her in amazement, Zerin feasted her eyes on the sight of the baby with warm silken skin and coal colored duck fluff adorning her head, her eyes a deep rich blue the exact color of the serene waters that brought her back.