This story is by Samran Ramzan and won an honorable mention in our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Samran is an English teacher from Southern Ontario, Canada. Although he’s a teacher, writing has always been his passion. He always dreamed of being a writer since middle school. Growing up, he gave up on piano and drawing, but writing is something that gives value to his life.
It was after midnight when the soldiers marched to the village in Myanmar. Flames flickered as if the sun had exploded.
“Wake up,” whispered Mya, ripping her son from his dreams.
There wasn’t time to pack. No food, no warm clothes. Kafia rubbed his eyes, arms around his mother’s swelled belly.
“Momma, what’s happening?” Fear and a million questions stared back at her.
“We have to go.”
She slipped through the back door, stroking the stone pendant around her neck. Kafia clung to Mr. Bubsy, his one-eyed teddy bear, wrapped in a blanket.
“Shh . . .” Mya massaged her belly to ease the pain. The villagers said a child’s strength in the womb determined if it was a boy or a girl. Girls slept peacefully; boys thrashed around, eager to come out. But Mya imagined a daughter, a tiny heart pulsing inside her. Unaware that outside her small world, another was burning into ashes.
“Where are we going?” said Kafia. The air twisted into a sizzling furnace. Thick smoke crawled into their throats. Nearby trees licked the flames that hissed and spat out orange fireflies into the night sky.
“Somewhere safe.” Mya forced her feet to move. Her eyes burned. She coughed uncontrollably, feeling the ashes settle inside her stomach, inside her daughter’s tiny belly. She tightened Mr. Bubsy’s blanket around Kafia’s face.
The memories tethered to her home flooded her mind. She swallowed hard, but her insides quivered as she watched the smoke rise into the night.
As she staggered into the forest, clinging to Kafia’s hand, the trees swayed like dark giants.
The hills were steep, the forest thick. A thousand fires burned down below. Branches snapped under their feet. Tall grass brushed at Mya’s knees. She squeezed Kafia’s tiny fingers as hundreds of Rohingyans darted past like shadows. Running from their homes just like her.
“It’s the bad people, isn’t it? They’ll see us, momma.” Kafia returned Mr. Bubsy’s blanket, hugging him tight. Mya rubbed her eyes, relieved by the cover of the forest.
“Stay with me. And do as I say.” Kafia nodded.
Gunshots echoed. Kafia pulled at his mother’s arm. Tree bark flung in the air. People fell as bullets flew through them. Mya dreaded a bullet was aimed at her, at Kafia. She held back her fear, pretended to stay strong. Her knees shuddered. She tried to control her panting, afraid the soldiers were watching them, listening for footsteps, for a breath, for fear.
Mya shuffled her feet. Her thoughts were tangled. Her vision blurred, uncertain whether her daughter would survive the journey. Perhaps she was already dead. A body, waiting to join the hundreds with bullet holes in their chests.
People marched down to the Naf River. Like flies, they waded through the deep water with baskets over their heads. Babies sat on shoulders as people swarmed the boats.
“Momma, my feet hurt.” Mya’s ankles had also swollen like a wasp sting. The pain rushed through as if an open wound had split her in half. She squeezed Kafia’s shoulder, one hand on her belly. Sweat clung to her tunic.
“I know you’re scared. I am too. But you have to be strong. Can you do that for me?” said Mya.
“I don’t like the sound of guns,” said Kafia. “Can we go home?” His head perked up, frantically looking in all directions as if the monsters he imagined were hiding in the trees.
“We’ll cross the border soon. The boat will take us to a safe place,” said Mya. “But you must to stay strong.”
“Then we should go, momma.” Kafia wrestled with his mother, pushing her, grabbing her arm, but he was only seven, and far too thin. “What if there’s no boat for us?” Mya combed her fingers through his stiff hair, holding him close. He shivered like a fish out of water.
Crossing the river meant starting a new life, forgetting all of this ever happened. But Mya knew that fire was all he’d see in his dreams for a long time.
“Why isn’t Papa with us?” said Kafia. Panting, Mya’s voice failed to form the words in her mouth.
“I . . . I don’t know,” whispered Mya. She’d accepted her husband’s death, but she couldn’t tell Kafia that a Myanmar soldier had shot his Papa in the head.
“You can’t swim,” shouted Mya.
“I’m being strong,” said Kafia, pulling his sleeves up to his bony elbows. He flung Mr. Bubsy into the boat. Before his feet could taste water, Mya grabbed his arm.
“I never meant look for trouble. Wait for the boat,” said Mya. “I’m not losing you in this chaos.” Her voice roared over the arms and legs thrashing in the water. Men pulled at ropes, tugging the boats close to shore. In the distance, sharp waves bobbed under boats in which hundreds of black heads huddled together.
She unclasped the stone pendant, but the boat captain put his hand up, seeing her swelled belly, and gestured for Mya to get on. A glimpse of hope in the man’s dark eyes comforted Mya.
Before she could thank him, gunfire rolled onto the beach. Myanmar soldiers hung from their trucks, firing non-stop. People abandoned their boats and ran back toward the forest. Bodies flooded the beach. The captain forced Mya inside the boat and began paddling.
“Kafia?” shouted Mya. “Where’s Kafia? Stop.” Women on the boat tucked their infants under their shawls as if the sea was a monster from a bedtime story, coming to swallow their children.
The trucks rolled into the forest, headlights like two funnels searched for their next target. At Mya’s feet, Mr. Bubsy lay soaked in water.
“They’ll come back,” said the boat captain. “Think of the child in your womb. We must leave.”
“Not without my son,” said Mya, picking up the one-eyed teddy bear. She held it close to her breast as she leaned over the edge of the boat and jumped.
Mya swallowed water. Women screamed at the sudden commotion. A splash behind her made her aware she wasn’t swimming alone. She began moving her arms faster.
Waves crashed against the boat behind her. A sudden glow sputtered in the distance like a fallen star. The soldiers had burned the forest down.
Mya held the tears in her eyes, not believing for a moment that her boy had disappeared. She held her breath, tried to pause the world around her. But her world had shrunk a thousand times in one night. As if the black canopy above mocked her, blowing out one star at a time.
“He promised he’d stay strong for me,” Mya whispered to herself. She thrashed her arms, trying to stay on the surface. Her stomach churned.
A hand grabbed her shoulder. It was the captain.
“Hold on to me!” His voice roared over the waves.
People on the boat pushed one another as a massive wave hit, turning the boat upside down. Mya prayed for another wave. Bigger than the last to end her suffering, to fade away the memory of her son.
Heads disappeared underwater, gasping for air. People crowded around the capsized boat. A large wave washed over Mya and the captain, pulling them under.
This was it. She was going to sink to the bottom of the river. Darkness coiled around her body. Her open arms floated freely as she sank deeper.
“Stay strong for me.” Kafia’s voice whispered into her ear. She had to go on. She had to stay strong for her son, for her daughter. Her arms pushed her up to the surface. Waves whipped at her cheeks as she gasped for air.
Bodies floated on the surface. Mya grabbed onto a fat one. Her arms stung like needles. She spat water, rubbed her eyes. Squeezing her belly, she tried to ignore the pain to stay afloat. A hand grabbed her leg. She reached down and pulled the captain up.
Soon, a nearby boat came to their aid.
When Mya arrived in Bangladesh, men carried her inside. When she awoke, the sheets of the cot were stained red. A woman next to her, clung to her children, whispering a lullaby. Mya felt shame for envying the woman, but Kafia’s face was all she could think about.
On the other side, her daughter’s tiny chest rose and fell like the sea that had washed over her. Mya had nothing, but her daughter, who’d opened her eyes to a world of gunfire.
As Mya sat around the fire one evening, feeding Mala, the flames twisted like snakes writhing into the sky. She remembered the hotness, the intensity that night, but these flames brought her comfort; warmth she hadn’t felt in a long time.
She’d told him to stay strong. Kafia was still out there. One day, he’d find his way across the river. She’d hold his hand close to the flames, tell him she loved him. Tell him he didn’t have to be afraid of fire anymore.