For a moment, Aasfa is at peace. Holding her face up to the sun and the cooling salty breeze, she shuts out the ugly sights, sounds and smells that surround her.
She is back in her village. Her mother calls from the kitchen and Aasfa skips across the dusty yard, sidestepping the family hen pecking away at the scorched earth. “Help me with dinner,” her mother says. Aasfa fetches some grey water from the well and puts a pot on the stove to boil.
Later, after finishing the thin soup, Aasfa, her mother and young brother Ali remain at the table drinking tea. Not for the first time, Aasfa brings up the subject of the boat, and as always, her mother resists the idea. She tells her mother again that her uncles will help raise the fare. Her mother takes her hand and searches her face for uncertainty. Finding only steely resolve, she reluctantly nods her agreement, eyes closed tightly against the pain of being without her daughter.
A baby’s crying brings Aasfa back. The woman sitting next to her has a bundle in her arms but has stopped rocking it. Aasfa looks closer; the woman’s face is blank, her eyes already cloudy and staring. Aasfa tries to pry the baby from the woman’s grip, but her attention is diverted to the bow of the boat.
A group of men are huddled in a circle looking down at the deck and shouting. A line of water is creeping out from the circle and along the wooden deck towards Aasfa; the line gets thicker as she watches. There is the sound of a motor. Aasfa raises her head above the side of the boat to see a dinghy moving away at speed.
The women start screaming now; the water has covered the deck and is rising by the second. Some of the men jump over the side of the boat, leaving behind wives and babies. Others hold their loved ones close, their lips moving in prayer.
Aasfa prays, too. Her god, in all his goodness, will surely help her in this, her hour of utmost need. The certainty calms her and she leans over to extricate the baby from its mother’s arms, just as the water reaches the baby’s legs. She lifts it up and cradles it; the crying stops.
The boat goes under minutes later. Aasfa treads water, trying to keep the baby’s head up, but her clothes are saturated and weighing her down. She mouths a “sorry, my sweet” to the baby as she releases it and sinks below the waves.
Through the dull sound of the desperate, threshing limbs of her fellow travellers nearby, Aasfa fancies she hears something altogether more beautiful: the lark that would pay her family a brief visit every year, trilling its crystalline song from the almond tree in the yard, while she and Ali played under its brilliant white blossom.
She pictures the sun-drenched scene, but it quickly blurs. And as her last breath burns her lungs, she manages a final, silent prayer.