A story responding to the photograph ‘Inside the Dilapidated Ship Noah’s Ark’ by Solmaz Daryani
The smell is what I remember most, the moist taste of it, as I breathed in, and out, then back in again. When I bit down on my lip to keep from heaving, I tasted blood, and something else, the ripe saltiness of the sea.
I don’t know why this helped, but it did. It distracted from the other smells, of people squashed together like plums, sweat pooling and dribbling, throats retching in the gloom. It was hot that day, the kind of heat that spills from your skin, until you are coated in it, your very own pool of moisture, making me dream instead of the pure coolness of water.
Breathe in, now out, now in again.
You will not be sick.
I swiped my tongue over my lips, let it pass over the residue of salt which had lodged there. No, I would not be sick. The thought of the sea calmed me. As the others clutched their stomachs when the boat dipped from side to side, I let it move me. Why should I be afraid of this water? She was our carrier, I trusted her more than I trusted this worn vessel.
I had been excited when my mother had told me its name: ‘Noah’s Ark’. I thought of the story, the one from the ancient book, how Noah had built his boat, and collected all the animals, two by two, by two.
I couldn’t wait to see them, especially the ones with wings. I had been disappointed to find there were none, at least not alive. I’m not sure this is what Noah meant.
I wanted to question my mother, but she was busy, her hand clutched by my younger sister. Beside her, my other siblings slept, so I wandered over to where my father rested, head raised to peek from the rafters.
He did not turn his head away when he heard me, only opened his arms to hold me close to him. I think I knew why. Already I could feel the air was fresher here. The salt whispered its closeness, and I ached to inhale all of it.
“What is mother so afraid of?”
My father, a man of few words, usually took a while to form them, as if each word was a weight, and he had to find the perfect balance. I waited, swallowing my own impatience.
“Your mother,” he started, then stopped, sucking his lip thoughtfully.
“She does not trust the water, but there is no other way. This is how we get out. My son, someday you will understand. It is dangerous here, too dangerous for us to stay.”
I nodded, tried to pretend that I understood, that I could be a grown up; I could protect my mother. We were at sea, and not even soldiers can run on water.
“Dad, can I see the ocean?”
He chuckled then; I can remember that, lifting me up high to see out the tiny break in the rafters.
“This is no ocean, my child. This is a lake.”
I was dumbfounded, but still looked eagerly onto its expanse, the waves forming, then breaking. I listened to it take its breaths, a rise as it inhaled, a hiss as it shuddered into white. I think I could understand this language, because I spoke it too. How could anyone be afraid of this?
I didn’t care what my father had said. To me this was an ocean, and I was its captain.
I drifted back to my mother, picking my way through mounds of feet, legs folded, and arms stretched. Already, I missed my view of the water, the solid presence of my father.
She had been watching out for me, and reached out to hold me as my father had. My sister lay quietly now, her head resting against my brother’s.
She stroked my hair in her silent way, held me tighter as the boat careened to the side. “Are you afraid, my child?”
I shook my head. “I’m not Mama, the ocean is here, and she’s going to carry us away from the bad men.”
I felt her smile press against my forehead. “Is that so?”
“In the story, Noah was afraid of the sea too you know. It’s why he built his boat, but if there was no water, then how would the boat move?”
She kissed me then, her arms loosening their hold.
And I breathed. In through my mouth, and out through the sea.