Philip James de Loutherbourg, A Shipwreck Off a Rocky Coast, c. 1760 (detail)
by Abraham T. Zere, translated by Samuel E. Tsegai
The dinghy came to a grinding halt. The passengers did not take long to realise the sudden change. As a ferocious wave swirled the boat right and left, they avoided the gunwale and the crowd evenly distributed itself on the sides of the boat to keep the balance.
The Captain mumbled inaudible, desperate words as he signalled to the passengers. The sight of his distraught demeanour indicated something dreadful was happening. All the passengers held their breaths and waited anxiously for his instructions.
Clearing his voice, he declared, “All right, listen up friends.” As they struggled to read his face through faint moonlight, they murmured, “Listen up! The Captain is speaking.” They then fell silent.
The Captain shone his torch into their faces to check if each one of them was awake and listening.
“The motor is not working. I tried my best but couldn’t fix it.” He shone his torch into their faces again to see their reaction.
The passengers began whispering amongst themselves. It seemed to have taken them a while to realise the implication of what the Captain was telling them. For many of them, it was their first time at sea and many thought that what the Captain had just told them was as light as a car having a flat tire.
“What is going to happen to us?” uttered a woman in a muffled voice.
“We will wait and see,” replied the Captain, quickly.
“How can we sit the rising storm out?” replied the woman.
“Let us hope we chance upon a coastguard.”
With each passing minute, every passenger seemed to finally comprehend the imminent danger looming ahead.
“What are you saying? Why didn’t you check the motor and make all the necessary safety precautions before we departed? Do you not understand that there are nineteen lives on board?” asked one elderly man with anger as he attempted to stand up. A wave rocked the boat and nudged him to his seat before he finished his statement.
“I did not deliberately cause this. I don’t control the sea. Remember, my life is also in danger.”
“Who cares about your life? You brought this on to yourself. It is sad that you have dragged us with you to death.”
“What has happened has happened! What do you want me to do?”
“I do not have to tell you what you have to do. You should have known better.”
The elderly man tried to stand up again, but sank back into his seat as the waves continued to rock the boat. The Captain shone his torch into the fear stricken, angry and confused face of the man. The other passengers could not decide on which side of the debate to align themselves. They were furious at the Captain for failing to ensure the health of the motor, but they realised that it was futile to antagonise him. He was the only person they could bank their hope on for successfully navigating them out of the storm.
“Time is running out and I should tell you what I think is the immediate action to minimise imminent danger.” The Captain’s loud voice drowned the hushed, low chatter of the passengers. “If water begins to enter the boat, that will be the end of all of us. The storm is not relenting one bit. So, I suggest, except for essential documents and money, we throw all our stuff into the sea. If you have any books or diaries, throw them as well.”
The passengers protested vociferously.
Judging that negotiating would not cut it, the Captain assumed a commanding tone and delivered a stern warning, “You should know that we are doing this for your own safety. Once the boat begins to take on water, there will be no way of reversing the situation. If you are not willing to do it yourself, I will throw them myself.”
“…he is right…!”
“…first let us open our bags to salvage important things that we might need later when we land…”
“…if we are going to do that we might as well keep all our bags. If we have to throw them we have to throw them…”
“…my bag is way less than a quarter of a kilo. It would not make that much difference if I keep it…”
“…do you understand that if everyone keeps as much it would be an awful lot of load. Everything should be thrown…”
“…this thing was entrusted to me by an acquaintance to deliver it to someone…it won’t increase the weight in any way…”
The bargaining, the frantic attempt to save something, and the reluctance to give away things they have carried all along their long journey continued. Pretending as if they were only saving documents and money, they tried to salvage clothes and things they thought they would not do without when they reached their destination.
Irritated by their equivocation, the Capital said, “Listen! We are running against time. We can’t afford to search bags to salvage worn-out underwear. You gotta listen to me. You can only keep money and important documents. Throw everything else now!”
“He is right. We should do his bidding quickly. The storm is roaring, if the boat starts to leak…” suggested one passenger.
“It is not now that we should talk about possible leakage. The Captain should have taken the necessary precautions prior to our departure,” repeated one unidentified passenger in a meek voice.
“I do not want to sweat the issue now. You there. And you, young man in the corner, come on and help me. Throw anything close to you into the sea!” the Captain ordered. Clutching his torch by the teeth, the Captain threw some bags making a loud splash in the sea. The two young men whose help he solicited followed suit. Seeing there was no escaping it, the other passengers also joined in.
“Captain, make sure nothing is left,” reminded one passenger.
Searching with his flashlight all over the boat, the Captain assured them that nothing except a small bag that a child was using as a pillow was left.
Thinking that that would end their problem, they heaved a sigh of relief and the boat buoyed up a notch.
“By the way, where exactly are we?”
“In the Mediterranean Sea”
“Is there a chance for a coastguard or any other ship to spot us?”
“This lane is a busy lane. If we are lucky, we might likely chance upon one.”
“…have you ever encountered a similar problem before?”
“No. This is my first time. I am wondering how cursed a day it is today.”
The conversation was between the Captain and one young passenger, but everyone tuned in.
“Folks, we should say a prayer! Let us supplicate to God. Let the Christians recite the act of contrition and the Muslims say your Du’aa’ al Doo-I-Noon! Our iniquities have separated us from God and our sins have hid His face from us. We have become lovers of our own selves: fierce, greedy and cruel. If it were not for our follies and great offense to God, we would not be lost in wilderness like this,” lamented an elderly woman with a deep, grievous voice.
Every passenger was surprised how she managed to stand upright to deliver her thoughts despite the violent swirl of the boat. Her thoughts divided opinion. Those passengers who agreed with her inched towards her and began to pray in unison. Reasoning that they were all speaking to the same God, the Muslim and Christian passengers joined hands in prayer. As if wanting to drown the roaring sound of the waves, they raised and synchronised their voices. Meanwhile, a strong wave continued to pound the hull of the boat and a considerable amount of water splashed over its bow. Already, the water on the boat had risen to their knees.
Fear-stricken and overwhelmed by the ferocity of the storm, and the amount of water entering the boat, the passengers were at a loss as to what to do about it. Their only hope was the Captain. They tried to scoop water out of the boat using fuel jerrycans. Though it quickly proved to be a Sisyphean task. Despite their best efforts, water continued to fill the boat. The immensely distressed face of the Captain told them all that they were at the cusp of a disaster.
“Folks, please listen to me. The situation is getting stressful. If we do not do anything, we will all go down with the boat. But, instead of that, I have thought of one thing which will prevent that possible catastrophe,” said the Captain. All the passengers fastened their eyes on him and waited for his proposition.
“The idea might look foolish, but I’m telling you, there is no foolish decision in a situation like this if the idea can avert major damage. Some of us should be thrown overboard. There is no other option. We should discuss how we should go about it.”
Some of his prior suggestions had mixed receptions: some supported him while others opposed. Everyone rejected his proposal of pushing someone from their midst into the sea.
“…we should collectively wait for our fate…”
“…this is an abomination, not a solution…”
“…who do you think will be fed to the fish and who will be saved? We should all face what is in store for us…”
The strong resistance to his proposal did not sway the Captain.
“What the Captain is proposing is not wrong. He is more experienced in matters of the sea than anyone here among us. Lest we all perish without a trace, the meaty amongst us should sacrifice themselves for the sake of the rest.”
“How are we going to choose those who should go first?”
“We should draw lots!”
“No, that is not a clever idea. The Captain should select those who should be thrown overboard.”
“Who is the Captain to decide who is going to die and who is going to live?” asked the elderly man who had had heated altercations with the Captain earlier on over his failure to check the condition of the motor before their departure. He was mortally afraid that the Captain might sacrifice him.
“I can’t decide on this issue. It is up to you to decide.” The Captain passed the baton to them.
“Let us draw lots. Women and children should be exempt,” suggested a young passenger.
“Why should we exempt them? Are not women declaring their equality with men in other areas? They should also be equal in shouldering the ordeal,” resisted another. The total number of female passengers was seven.
“Instead of that, why do not we tally those who weigh down the boat and those who do not. Then the huskies…”
“What is it about this division between the fat and the lean? Don’t we all have life? We should face together what might come our way,” argued the largest person in the group.
“Time is running out! You had better decide quickly. The boat is sinking,” ordered the Captain sitting at the gunwale of the boat.
“Friends, why prevaricate this much? Are not our days already numbered? Isn’t it said that for the godly person the day of his death is better than the day of birth? What were we fervently praying for just a few minutes before? Do we not have faith as that of a mustard seed? I am a believer and I know that God will open the gates of heaven for me after I face my fate. If I must die here, let the will of the Lord be done. I will happily accept it,” preached the woman who led them in prayers earlier.
“Why don’t you start then?” asked one passenger.
“I will. For the sake of my brothers and sisters, I will. It is just that the Lord says your life is not your own and you can’t take it away on your own. I can’t kill myself and commit a grievous sin.”
The passengers suggested the woman sit on the gunwale of the boat and God will summon her. She obliged.
“The decision the woman has taken is touching. Sacrificing oneself for the sake of your fellow travellers is admirable. After God commanded our father Abraham to offer him his son Isaac as a sacrifice, he bound him to….”
“Time is running out folks. Stop talking!” interrupted the Captain.
The woman volunteer perched on top of the boat held fast to the gunwale and began to fervently pray out loud. Her persistence and strength surprised the other passengers. Some began to whisper, “When is she going to fall? Shall we push her from behind?” However, fearing doing that might call forth the wrath of God, they did not dare. Suddenly, the woman snapped and fell to the sea. In the wink of an eye, the roaring waves pulled her down into the deep sea.
Sullen and silent, all sat in a deep despair. They regretted not keeping the name and address of the woman. A short wail was heard on one corner of the boat. In subdued voices, they began whispering about her heroic and selfless sacrifice.
“What the woman did was exemplary. Yet it is still not enough. We must quickly cast lots and reduce our numbers. Otherwise, the boat is close to capsising” commanded the Captain. All agreed.
“I will call a number, and anyone selected will go down.”
“The Captain himself should also participate. He has no service to render to us now,” dared one passenger.
“He can make a distress call to any coastguard that might appear on the horizon. Or he might come up with a solution. And without his leadership, there will be a complete commotion. I think it is better that he is exempt,” opposed another. They did not pursue the thought any further.
“We do not have time. 37! I will count and anyone selected will immediately go down the plank. There is no other choice.”
“Change the number. At least make it 85.”
“No. it should be 347.”
“Folks, we do not have time to count to three hundred and above. I will take a median number. 135! One, two, three…” The Captain began to count. Meanwhile, a considerable amount of water entered the boat and almost swamped those with smaller bodies.
“Wait a second! I have an objection here…” blurted one young man at a corner. “…I and my lover should be counted as one. We die together, or we live together. We vowed to stick together until death did us apart.”
“We can’t do that. We are not even making an allowance for the kids here. We are counting each individual independently.”
“I think you did not get what I said . If either of us is selected, we will go down together.”
Nobody objected. In fact, they all welcomed that if the young man was selected, the boat would be relieved of two people. That would be killing two birds with one stone. The lots were cast, and one young man was selected. Everyone else heaved a heavy sigh of relief.
“Buddy, fortune is blind and you are unfortunately the one. Before time runs out for all of us you should voluntarily jump…”
“Voluntarily jump my foot! I will never do it!” asserted the young man.
“Why?” the Captain asked.
“Are you fucking kidding me? I do not want to die. That is why! I am the only child to my mother. My father died when I was a little kid. My mother struggled real hard to raise me, and sold everything she had, to pay for this journey hoping that I will get a new chance at life in Europe, but your criminal negligence has put all of us in danger. It is you who should be thrown overboard.”
“Do not take us back to that issue now. You consented to casting lots. Why did you do that if you are not ready to accept the result?”
“I thought it would pass me by. Just the same, I am not going to finish off my life. Let anyone dare touch me!” he threatened.
Seeing his ferocious temper and sturdy physique, everyone realised that he wouldn’t go down that easily. “Well, we do not have any other choice but to gang up on him and make him walk the plank,” suggested one passenger in a low voice to avoid being overheard by the young man.
“He is right, we should push him quickly,” seconded another passenger, who seemed to have judged his physical strength as equalling the man resisting.
“Come, touch me, I dare you!”
“We all consented to casting lots. You should accept your fate,” replied a determined passenger while approaching the man. The two faced each other and a fight ensued. No one from the other passengers dared to join them. Given their proportional strength, the fighting did not end quickly.
Tired and afraid of the fighting, one passenger suggested: “We should throw both overboard.” The Captain agreed and the passenger approached the fighting duo. Seeing that they had dropped their guard a bit in the hope of a mediation, he forcefully pushed them over the gunwale. The whole boat broke in applause in relief. Even the utterly depressed women and children who occupied the corners of the boat gained some hope.
“Contrary to what we had hoped, the reduction of our numbers by three seems not to have made much of a difference…”
“If it is not making any difference, why did we waste the lives of our colleagues for naught then?” interjected one person.
“Let me finish. I have seven life jackets. We should cast lots again to decide who will wear them. The remaining should wait for their fate.”
A complete silence descended on the boat. No one raised a finger in objection to the plan. The Captain cast the lot and announced two winners. One life jacket was reserved for him. While preparing to cast the lot again for the four remaining life jackets, he felt a sudden change. To his surprise, he saw a ship up close to their side. “A ship! A ship folks! A ship is coming to us!” he exclaimed. He immediately made a distress signal.
Even though water had filled the boat to the gunwales, while many of the passengers were fighting to stay afloat, the arrival of the ship almost quite literally buoyed them up. Fatigue and hopelessness instantly left their faces and they looked fresh and energetic.
“Pity that we have lost three people to a terrible death! What will their mothers say when they hear about them! How will they feel when they hear that their sons have not made it safely?” A woman of roughly 40 years old began to wail and weep inconsolably. Everyone in the boat followed her. They talked affectionately of the selfless woman and the two young men. “If you hadn’t hastened to push them overboard, they would have been saved.” They charged the passenger who pushed the two men. The sudden change of emotion and judgement left him speechless.
As the rescuers moved everyone in the boat to the ship, a murmuring subsided, and everyone said grace.
Food and drinks were served. Blankets were distributed. Music played on board the ship. Warm and dry, and with full stomachs, the rescued jubilantly danced to the music.
About the Author
Abraham T. Zere is US-based Eritrean exiled writer/journalist whose work has been published in The Guardian, The Independent, Al Jazeera English, Mail & Guardian, Index on Censorship Magazine, among others. The story was taken from his book ካልእ ስለ ዘየሎ (“Kalie Sile Zeyelo”: Emkulu Publisher, 2020); his debut collection of short stories in Tigrinya.
About the Translator
Samuel E. Tsegai is a PhD student of history at Queens University of Canada.
Note on the Translation
Translated from Tigrinya by Tsegai.