It is dark. So dark she cannot see her fingers when she wiggles them in front of her face. Her body is pressed in on all sides by other young girls. Girls, like herself, alone and frightened.
The stench in the bottom of this boat is so overwhelming even the scarf she has pressed over her nose and mouth does not keep it away. She tries to breathe slowly and shallowly not letting too much of the stench into her lungs. Sweat, vomit and urine mixed with something denser, deeper – basic animal fear. She could taste it on her lips, inside her mouth.
The girl pressed into her right side sobs aloud and is quickly shushed by the older girl pressed against both their backs.
How long have they been on this boat? She has never been on a boat before, even though her family lives by the water. Only her father and two older brothers go fishing with their small boat. Every day they would go out looking for fish to feed their own family and, hopefully, with enough extra to sell in the market. Every day, that is, until the day her father and brothers did not return at sundown. Other fishermen found their boat, but not her father and brothers.
Her mother cried and cried. How would the rest of the family of 11, now 8, eat? Women were not allowed to work outside of their homes.
The youngest of her brothers were sent to beg in the streets. They weren’t very good at it and came home with only 1 or 2 coins and long, sad faces. They hated begging in the streets where their friends might see them.
The girl could tell the family would not survive much longer with no food and no way to pay the rent for the small, dirty hut away from the water and sun they now had to live in. No yard to grow vegetables in like before, no hope for going to school now – for her brothers, that is. Girls in her fishing village did not go to school. No point to it, since they would be marrying young, having enough children to help with the fishing and gardening while the wives learned to clean fish and pack them to be ready for sale on market day.
Soon, her parents would have chosen a husband for her. It would soon be her 14th birthday, time for her to marry and start having babies. Now, however, without a father and older brothers to negotiate a marriage for her, this would never happen. Sometimes girls without fathers married if she brought enough property and money to the marriage, but she had neither.
What to do? What to do?
Her mother cried all the day long and their stomachs were empty at the end of each day.
One day, about a month after her father and brothers disappeared she found she had wandered to the middle of her village. In the village square was a man, a handsome man wearing a white caftan and white trousers. He had a white straw hat in his left hand and was gesturing with his right hand for her to come to him. When he smiled, his teeth gleamed whitely, blazing in the sunlight. Even his voice sounded white.
He told her he was looking for young, strong girls just like herself to work for rich people farther inland. Could she cook, clean fish, sweep a floor? The girl nodded yes and yes again! She could do all these things!
This was all a lie. Her mother did all the work in the house.
The girl would learn these things after her fourteenth birthday in 3 weeks. The secrets of womanhood still eluded her, but soon all would be revealed. The girl was desperate to impress this man with the blazing smile, so she answered yes to everything he asked.
He told her he was looking for young, hard-working girls who came from good hard-working families who had fallen upon hard times. He knew of wealthy families in the nearest big city who were in need of maids and cleaning women and nannies for their spoiled children. They paid handsomely for these young workers. Would she like to be one of these chosen girls? She would live in a castle, enjoy the best food, be able to save money from her monthly salary to send home to her mother.
Yes, yes, yes!
The man with the blazing smile said there was only one little task she needed to perform first. He asked for ‘only $900’ to pay for her passage to the big city, uniforms for her new position and government papers to prove who she was and why she was traveling inland. If her mother agreed to this arrangement and paid the $900 she could leave by the beginning of next month, on her 14th birthday.
The girl was thrilled. New shoes, new clothes, a new cloak, food, a room in a castle and wages to send to her family.
She was so excited about this opportunity to save her family from starvation and shame that she ran all the way home, even though a proper young woman, no matter her social status, would never run in the village streets. Because she was so pretty the townspeople indulged her high spirits and forgave her for running through the town. She was a good runner and her braids flew straight out behind her ears in a most comical and charming way, or so she had been told. She was her father’s favorite, even above her brothers, so she could not let them down even after their deaths.
The man with the blazing smile provided a better, richer life she could not refuse. So…she begged and cried and pleaded and stamped her foot until her mother gave in and sold her wedding sari with the golden threads she was saving for the girl’s wedding. The wedding that now would never take place. The sari plus her mother’s wedding band fetched the $900 needed to travel to the inland city where the girl’s exciting new life was about to begin.
In the dark, by the water, 20 of us, mostly girls of 14 years or younger, stood in a circle holding tightly to our bundles of clothing and perhaps a stuffed dolly we just couldn’t part with. We all tried to smile at one another, but soon our heads were bowed and we became lost in our own thoughts.
The man with the blazing smile came striding into our circle with his hands outstretched to collect the money we brought. After collecting the money he also collected our travel papers which had been made out quite properly for each of us. He would stow these items for safe-keeping until we returned to visit our families on our first day off a month from now.
I as yet sensed no harm in the man’s actions. They made sense to a 13 year old girl.
Then he had some men collect our luggage and stuffed dollies claiming they would also be safer in one place until we were assigned to the rich people’s home in which we would be living and serving.
We climbed into the fishing boat and were wondering aloud how such a small boat could carry us and all of our possessions to the bigger town upriver when to my surprise the boat turned around and went down the river into the harbor. There, a large boat strung with little lights and rising higher into the air than any building in my neighborhood, lay waiting for us. I came to know this big boat to be a sailing yacht for rich people to sail across the wide water in front of us.
When we climbed on board there were perhaps 30 girls already there. We were tossed in with them. No money, no bundles of our precious possessions and, more alarmingly no government papers to prove who we are. It slowly dawned on me that we had been kidnapped and would never see our families again. The money my mother had sold her most prize possessions for was lining the clean, white pockets of the man with the blazing smile. Who knew where we were going now? We climbed a rope ladder up onto the deck of the bigger boat and were shoved belowdeck where I found myself in a space so dark I could not see my fingers when I wiggled them in front of my face.
The next morning – I could only guess it was morning by the tiny slices of light blinking through the spaces between the slats of wood overhead, the cries of the birds seeking their morning breakfast, and the muffled sighs of the men as they came awake above us – I found myself in the same dark, dank putrid hole I was in all night. So, this had not been a dream I could awaken from. It was a nightmare that I would never be able to escape.
Soon there was the sound of a motor and laughter both high like a woman’s and low like a man’s. The motor stopped and there was a thud as a smaller boat carrying these people hit against the side of our boat. More laughter. I heard people climbing the rope ladder we had used the night before, but these women were allowed to stay up on the top deck in the warm sun and cool breeze and fresh salty air.
These people were not barefoot as we were. I could hear the clacking of metal heels on the floor boards above our heads. Then I heard a sound that froze my blood in this hot, sticky, stifling place.
It was the deep rumbling laughter of the man with the blazing smile. I had wished to never see him again, but here was my captor laughing right above me with his friends.
What other surprises awaited me?
The older girl in charge of us whispers to us to stay silent. Not one sound or we will be discovered and all killed and thrown over the deck as food for the sea monsters. We all believe her.
Just as she finishes giving us this warning something scuttles across my cramping, outstretched legs with claws that dig into my flesh. It must be a rat. A scream forms in my throat and travels up my tongue into my mouth. It sits behind my clenched teeth and lips pressed tightly together. It wants to escape into the fetid, heavy air. If I open my lips even the slightest bit the scream will escape and go on and on and on….spinning and spiraling up and up through the tiny slits in the boat’s boards overhead and up into the clean, cool sea air. Then upward into the sky. Perhaps my scream will travel on the wind back home to my mother who will stop in mid-sweep with her worn broom in one hand gnarled with work and age, the baby strapped to her back crying weakly from hunger. Perhaps she cocks her head slightly thinking she hears my voice but, ‘no’ her eldest daughter is no longer in the hut, no longer in the fishing village, no longer in the bigger town upriver working for a wealthy captain of many fishing boats. No, her sweet eldest daughter, soon to be 14, is no longer even in the same country. I think about being food for the sea monsters and swallow the scream that is knocking against my front teeth and I pull my bare legs in closer to my chest and wait for what, I do not know.
The boat’s motor starts up and we must be heading out to sea now. After a while the motor stops, but we keep moving so the sails must be up and they are moving with the wind. The waves are rough and the ride bumpy and many of the girls are vomiting adding to the stench and fear.
I can hear more laughter and music above my head, the clink of glasses, the booming voice of the man with the blazing smile. How can these people be enjoying themselves with so much misery right beneath their dancing feet? This question will stay with me my whole life. The distance between people like myself from people like those above will remain a mystery to me.
I have eaten nothing, but still manage to vomit as the boat hits wave after wave. Time slows down. The hours, minutes and seconds tick slowly by marked by pain in every part of my being, throbbing in my head and behind my eyes. Hurting my very heart.
I am like my baby sister now. Too weak to even cry properly.
The boat suddenly stops, knocking against wood, a dock somewhere in the world. The chattering people with the noisy, metal heels go down a plank of wood and disappear, their laughter floating back on the sea air. After a while, hours perhaps, a man opens a door in our ceiling – his floor – and sends a ladder down beckoning us to climb up. No one can move at first as our legs are frozen into whatever position we have been sitting in all night and day. Our clothes are soaked with urine and vomit and worse. But, slowly, ever so slowly, we rise and push or partially carry one another up the ladder.
I wait until all the other girls are above deck. I climb up the rough wooden ladder and poke my head out the hole and stop, startled by the harsh sunlight even though the sun is setting now. I am made breathless by the clean salty air filling my ruined lungs. I am amazed by the sight before me. A castle with a high stone wall all around. Sand. Lots and lots of white sand dazzling even in the fading sunlight. I walk down the plank of wood and step one small bare foot onto the sand, spellbound by the sight before me.
What will become of me now? Someone, please save me!
Across the expanse of sand, beyond the castle and its walls of protective stone that will soon become the girl’s prison, an American woman is sitting by her kitchen window, safely inside her gated community of ex-patriots.
A cup of tea is midway between the table and her parted lips. She is wondering why she is in this desert country, so foreign to anything she has ever known. She feels a chill and shivers although it is turning out to be another scorching day. Something, someone has just called out to her: “Save me….”
“Yes,” she whispers to the empty house, to her empty self.
“Yes. Please God. Save Me.”