The winner of our inaugural short story writing competition, on the theme of Borders, is Joanna Wolanska, from Wembley, for The Night Run. Below we publish the winning story, followed by comments from our judge (Fiona Shaw) and then three other stories - the runners-up. Joanna wins £50.00 and a signed first edition of Fiona's latest novel.
NEW (June 2018): We read all four short stories aloud, recorded the readings and posted the recordings on our Soundcloud page, where anyone can listen to or download them.
The Night RunIt is a Wednesday and they travel through a land of dust. Gritty, brown, dust. Dust with the creak of grasses blowing stiffly in the wind; the occasional rock, occasional twisted and blasted shrub. Dust stirring and rattling through the plains, filling derelict buildings, seeping into waterways. It is a Wednesday and the men in the truck push together as the truck rattles its way slowly through this land: through a bleak morning, which descended into a grim afternoon, followed by a bleak evening, and now it is dark, the barely warm air steadily cooling, and the truck rattles nervously on. A quarter to twelve, and no time to be out, not here on these bleak ridges, these gritty paths, but the roll and thump of tyres on potted asphalt continues.After hours of grim silence and the pull of the wind, the truck turns onto a darkened ridge, and starts moving rapidly down darkened and potholed slope. Too quickly for this lateness, too quickly for this thick, dusty dark, the truck shudders its way down. The headlamps, jolting, ingrained with dust and dead insects, faintly probe ahead.Inside, it is thickly warm. The radio turned low stutters and crackles with a romantic ballad while religious pendants swing frantically above the dash; prayer beads flinging themselves against a chime, a small fuzzy animal spinning and bouncing emptily. Driver, eyes fixed on the erratic jolt of the headlamps, manoeuvres the truck onwards, chewing incessantly, eyes locked on the uneven road. Inside, the air is murky, laced with fig wine, windows smudgily fogged. The men sit, pushed against each other, breathing thickly, lurching in the dark. They have been driving since Tuesday nightfall, when it was dark enough, Fixer promised, to avoid the militias, avoid drones, dark enough to avoid the lazy pull of jobsworth with a rusted rifle.It has been dark for too long. The men are getting nervous. The man sitting behind Driver leans forward. How far, he asks.Driver does not turn, stays fixed on vague outline of the track they are following.He leans forward, touches the drivers shoulder. How long. How far.Driver turns, his face flecked by the intermittent lights of the dash. A glimpse again of stubble, eye pouches, deep wrinkle; the face of a farmer, a shepherd, one used to the outdoors, the wind, the dust, the grey rains. The steering wheel jolts suddenly as the truck rebounds off an unseen obstacle, he swears, grips the wheel, wrestles it back into order. The men in the back jolt and swear quietly. A snorer stops, starts, continues.Righted, Driver replies. Not far now. Turns, realigns his knotted back, and after a moment sighs appreciation for a quiet ululation crackling through the stereo. And the jolting continues. The man sits back, pushing back his snoring companion, and presses his head against the cold window.It is another half hour before the truck finally halts. The sky is a thick mass of cold stars, the wind in these plains dropped. Driver guides the truck to a slow stop near the outline of a grove of twisted, stunted trees. The men stir. The stink of the truck, all breath and bodies, drink and spice.The same man leans forward. We are here? He asks Driver.Yes, says Driver. He zips up a creaking leather jacket, tensely eyes the darkness. Quick quick. Everyone out. We are nearly at the border now.Aside from a couple of whispers the men are on the move, twisting in the fetid warmth of the vehicle, rubbing eyes, and getting stiffly and quietly out into the cold night air.Quiet, says driver. Though the creaking and jolting of the truck would surely have been spotted had someone, somewhere lurked in this darkened creaking grove, this late at night.They unload bags, thrown into a confused heap on the ground where the men stumble and curse and search for their possessions in the dark. The man, he travels light, a smaller rucksack he has held on his knees the entire journey, and he slides into the straps, pulls them down firmly. He sways from side to side, hands tucked, eyeing the mass of dark shapes on dark that have swallowed them.Fixer, who up until then had sat morosely next to Driver at the front, playing a game of tumbling blocks on his phone, now speaks. The border, he says. The men circle, clutching bags, listening intently. Follow this track up through the trees. Be as quick as you can. After 10 minutes you reach house. Be quick and quiet. Pass house, continue straight and then border. No more than 15 minutes you be there. Ok? Ok.Driver is already back in the car, restarting the engine, lights flickering nervously on. He is eyeing the dials, wanting to start the drive back home, a firm lumpy bed, the caresses of his woman. Fixer is heading around to join him. Some of the men are still arranging bags, hunched, but others, bags on, seeing the truck start its slow arc to depart, are hurrying off into the darkened treeline. The man, caught between two groups, caught with the sudden fear of leaving the safety of the rickety, singing truck, which even now has already performed a three point turn and is jolting its way back, tail light winking obscenely, the faint ululating drift of a woman complaining of lost love. In a moment everything will be black again, the thick night, and so he turns, runs, stumbling after the darkening outlines of departing men, running on that last furious rush for the border. Up through the trees, up through the silently menacing night.The track is steep and uneven, he hears the thud of his heart, the rush of air, the crashing of other men around him, the sweep and sigh of these stunted trees. He grips his rucksack, stumbles on, quickly, yes quickly, using the light of his phone to light his way, as they all are, those who have the privilege of a phone, a blinking chain making their way up through the grove. He tries to breathe calmly, in out, not imagine grizzled men in the shadows, bringing rifles up slowly to aim. They said this route was safe, the best way. The quickest and the safest, he breathes, in time with his panting. Do not think of the slow gaze of the rifle. The patient wait of the hunter. Think instead of warm stew, yes a delicious stew, the sweet figs, lamb pulling apart, caramelised sauce. He pictures it, the new land, as he runs, stumbling; the tall straight trees, their branches neatly arched. Orderly fields, tended, full of scented fruit and firm vegetables. A clean white house, square neat windows, freshly washed, smoke running neat and straight from chimney to sky.The tree line breaks, and there is a squat dark shape ahead. Half walking, half jogging, a stitch tearing at his side, he reaches the house, some of the men slowed but moving on. The way the men in front have paused makes him pause too, for it is barely a house anymore, rather the ruined fragment of an argument from long ago, a centuries old grudge so deep no one can unpick. It is blackened against the night sky, roof slumped, shards of glass winking. The cold air catches in his throat, his breath is even louder, painful in the night. He pictures it: the men hiding inside, the cool gleam of their rifles, or if they are bored, knives, and the way they laugh quietly when they hear these desperate men stumbling past in the dark.He blinks, clutches his rucksack, moves off thinking not far not far not far and his breath is catching in his throat and it is searing like petrol, like inhaling smoke and his feet jolt and the darkened world sways and he thinks not much further and in fact the light is slightly coming up and the world in front is a slightly lighter grey than the world behind and he picks up speed, he runs and thinks of a smart job with clean hands and clean shave and an attentive tilt of the head and a wife, oh yes there will be a wife with modest hair and a neat headscarf and a long careful skirt down the dusty floor and she will keep their square white house clean, wash the windows carefully, brush her hands on her apron, place her hands on her hips, scanning the road waiting for him to come home.And his feet are crunching and some of the men have fallen back and others run alongside him and he scans ahead for the border that must be coming up soon, the borderline, the mark between here and there, the start of a newness, the cleanness, the safety. He knows as soon as he passes it, away from this rough scrub, this unkempt war ridden land, then he will be safe, those menacing hands with the rifle and knives will not touch him here. But the scrub continues, the rough ground, the men running and labouring breath.And then he is the forerunner, the rest have fallen back, darkened shapes in the greying morning. He can see the bulk of another house up ahead. He approaches it, slowing. Fixer hadn’t mentioned another house. And here it is blackened, ruined, windows askew. He pauses, confused, swaying. The glint of a rifle sliding through a broken window. He calls back to the men – the border? Where is the border?They call back – it’s back there. We passed it. We are safe now.___________________Fiona Shaw is the York-based author of the widely reviewed memoir Out of Me and five novels, including Tell it to the Bees, which is to be released as a film later in 2018, and her new novel Outwalkers, which was published in February 2018 and (like our competition) concerns borders. She also kindly judged our competition - and wrote the following comments:The stories shortlisted for the York Amnesty” Borders” competition ranged from the USA to Africa, and across the Middle East to Europe, and into the heart of the UK. There were stories about all ages, from children to elderly people. Each and every story gave me a new perspective on the borders that exist between people, between cultures, between countries – and the terrible impact they have when they are brutally enforced. I was taken back into the 1940s and the flight from another totalitarian regime, and drawn beneath the ocean into a fabular world of mermaids, from where the human world is seen in all its lethal selfishness. Some of the stories ended in the bleakest place, and others found hope, but not in the politics or larger schemes; rather within the acts of kindness and generosity from one person to another. All were strongly imagined, and important acts of storytelling.The story I’ve chosen as the winning story is “The Night Run”. It is a powerful and beautifully written story that tells of one man’s flight across a border. The writer imagines how it might be, to be one figure in a crowded truck travelling across a dusty, gritty foreign landscape. They imagine first the truck driver, driving these fleeing refugees through his own land and looking forward to returning home and the ordinary comforts he will find there. Then the writer pictures the refugee, fleeing we don’t know what, but wishing for those same things. Although it is a story written very much about a male sensibility, and perhaps a male sensibility that has had little experience of women’s equality, it is a tender, gentle sensibility that wishes, above all, for food, human warmth and a safe place to live. In the writing of the man’s actions and physical experiences, the story expresses all the wishes, and the ambivalence, held in the symbol of the border. Or, as the story puts it: ‘the mark between here and there, the start of… safety’.Finally, the story rises to a wonderfully suspended finale, the kind that only a short story can offer, and the reader is left, as the man is: unsure whether this is the start of something, or an end.The three runners-up, arranged alphabetically by surname, are Safe Passage by Jane Austin, who lives in York, The Crossing by Dennis Brickles from Harrogate and Currents by Charlotte Platt from Caithness. Here are their stories.
On Sundays Daniel finds refuge in the makeshift Eritrean church. Wherever he is in the camp, he can see its tower of grey plastic sheeting and the wooden cross watching over him.
Inside St Michael’s, people kneel on the floor, praying in different languages and he wonders how Jesus can understand them all. He says his prayers looking up at a photo of the Virgin Mary, who has his mother’s tender eyes. He longs for the moment when people share bread, passing round a broken baguette. The warmth of touch as the basket goes from hand to hand, fills him with a strange happiness. It helps salve the ravaging loneliness he’s felt since turning seven; the day passed like any other, except for remembering how his mother would bake his favourite raisin loaf and give him new shoes on his special day.
His bedroom is a leaky shack made from tarpaulin stretched over a wooden frame, and he loves listening to the older boys’ stories of jumping onto lorries, as he drifts into sleep. To him they are warriors doing battle with giants, real-life heroes who wear their scars lightly. He must be patient, Marie-Laure tells him, if he wants to reach England. His name is on a list of children with no family. ‘Don’t worry,’ she says, ‘you should be allowed to go.’
At night he wakes, sobbing and fighting for breath. The others shout at him to go back to sleep. The dream is always the same. His uncle holds onto him as the rubber boat fills with water. It lists dangerously as people retreat from the punctured corner and there’s terrible screaming, terrible as his mother’s screams when the men came to drag his brother away to the military.
‘It’s alright,’ his uncle says, ‘our jackets will float.’ The waves are walls of water and people fall in, bobbing up and down, yellow and red, blue and green, while he and his uncle cling to the high side of the dingy. Those without jackets disappear, a single wave cutting them down like a knife.
The churning water sucks them under, as though swallowed whole by a whale. The dream comes night after night, the story of Jonah told in pictures which he now knows to be true.
His body breaks the surface. He’s vomiting and choking, his oversized jacket keeping him afloat on his back. In the outer reaches of consciousness, he registers vibrations like the sound of an engine, but he’s too weak to cry out and the rumbling passes him by. This is the moment he jerks awake, heart galloping in panic. The journey of terror replays itself night after night and each time he sees his uncle drowning.
Seagulls swoop overhead as Daniel waits in line behind the clothes truck. Jostling boys tower over him, calling out to the volunteers and he feels small and helpless. A grey-haired woman standing on the back of the truck, shouts, ‘Sweatshirts, age 14,’ and pulls out a fistful from a plastic bag. There’s a rush forward to take what’s on offer and Daniel is buffeted by the crowd. He wants a fleece because the nights are turning cold, if only he can squeeze between the bodies. The scent of crushed spices and garlic waft from the Afghan food stall and he’s suddenly ravenous.
He sees Marie-Laure running over in his direction, golden ponytail swaying. ‘Daniel,’ she says, breathless, ‘you’re going to the seaside today!’
She must have seen his face fall.
‘Don’t worry, Chéri, we’re not going to swim. We’ll play football on the sand and have a picnic.’
He’s tempted. ‘But I need a fleece!’
‘I’ll get you one tomorrow. The bus is leaving any minute, so let’s go!’
He accepts her hand, his step light at leaving the boisterous crowd. Marie-Laure says he needs fun and fresh air because he’s been looking sad. One of the Sunday volunteers has turned up with a minibus, so they are in luck. She leads him to the edge of the camp where they pass police vans and a posse of gun-toting officers, sending a shudder down his spine.
It’s only when he climbs onto the bus that he realises this outing is with a party of teenage girls, and from their chatter in Tigrinya, from his country. Evidently, the girls have been expecting him. A tall girl who looks a bit like his sister, asks, ‘Are you here on your own, Daniel?’
She smiles. ‘We’re alone too, all of us together.’
Tears well up and he turns to the window. The last time he cried was playing football when a large boy kneed him in the groin and his pain was unbearable. Now the pain is in his heart and he has to be strong to honour the promise to his mother.
The beach is full of families and the volunteers look round for a space large enough for their group. They settle near sand dunes away from the crowd and a safe distance from the water. Marie-Laure spreads blankets on the ground and the driver has a holdall full of bats and balls. Daniel hopes they’ll play straight away but the girls want to stretch out in the autumn sun.
‘Which of us would you marry, Daniel?’ the tall girl teases.
He knows this game from his sisters’ friends and enters into it. He admires the lively eyes of one girl and the perfectly plaited hair of another, then notices the finest tracery of henna on the delicate hands of a girl who is otherwise plain. The girls giggle with pleasure, pointing out features he’s failed to notice, until he gives up, saying they are all beautiful and he daren’t choose.
One girl asks, ‘Who wants to play football?’ And they all collapse laughing again, for reasons he cannot fathom.
He jumps up and picks a ball from the holdall and starts kicking around hopefully, until two of the younger ones join in. They are good, passing the ball skilfully between themselves then kicking it to him, until the others scramble to their feet, unable to resist. The sun warms him to the bone and he forgets the dust and mud at the camp, the stinking latrines, the waiting for something to happen. The moment is utterly his, as he flies around dribbling, heading, niftily bouncing the ball from knee to knee, and the volunteers cheer from the side-lines to see these children being themselves.
Darkness is falling back at the camp and there’s disturbance in the air. His friend, Shahid, points to white containers on a cleared portion of the site. ‘That’s where they’re going to put us, twelve to a box, if we claim asylum in France.’ The night is wakeful as the boys talk feverishly, weighing the chances of escape against the risk of being deported, and Daniel feels scared.
The next day, official notices are posted: the camp is to be bulldozed. He doesn’t understand bulldozed, but he knows everyone must go. Volunteers continue to deliver metal trays of food from the kitchens, but they too are confused, they don’t know what’s happening. Daniel decides to stick with Shahid because he trusts his intense blue eyes that smile even when he’s serious.
At the Children’s Bus, Marie-Laure is handing out new phones and topping up credit. She replaces Daniel’s old phone and says, ‘It’s for emergencies. Don’t waste it on emojis.’
He retreats to the deserted Jungle Books Kids’ space, with its sign, ‘DON’T DESTROY MY HOPE PLEASE, in dripping black letters.
‘What are you doing, little brother? I’ve been looking for you,’ Shahid says urgently. ‘Get ready, we’re leaving tonight. Dress warm and take a rucksack.’ He throws a bottle of water. ‘Save it for the journey.’
It’s freezing when the group steals out and Daniel shivers in his new fleece. They walk to an overpass, dodging police, to a waiting van. The van speeds to a desolate area surrounded by barbed wire, and the guide takes them to an enclosure full of lorries. He unlocks the back of one of them.
Shahid shoulders Daniel up and others pile in, inserting themselves between metal crates full of cardboard boxes. The doors slam shut. It’s black as a starless night and Daniel’s heart pumps with fear at being locked in the dark.
After hours of fitful dozing, he comes to; the air is thick and his tongue dry as old leather. He fumbles for his bottle and takes a sip.
‘Shahid, you there?’
‘Yes, little brother. I’m here.’
‘Where are we?’
‘In England, brother.’
His breath comes fast and shallow and his mind is foggy. ‘When can we get out?’
‘When the driver stops. Go back to sleep now.’
A laboured voice cries out, ‘God help us! Allah yosa-edna!’
Daniel hears thumping on the side of the van, followed by a man’s voice wailing and his guts turn to pulp. The stench of human waste makes his stomach heave and the lorry rocks like the boat in his dreams. He thinks of his uncle’s lungs squeezed of air and believes he too will die.
In a surge of terrible clarity, he takes out his mobile and messages, no oksijen on lori help, to Marie-Laure, praying it will span the distance to her phone.
Impossible to say how long it is before his mobile vibrates. He answers, and a voice says, What’s your name? Where are you? Who else is with you? How many people? Talk to me, so we can track the signal and find you. Fighting for breath, he gasps, I’m Daniel… sixteen people… in England… please save us.
He feels a crushing weight in his chest and he’s losing consciousness when a screech of police sirens brings the lorry to a halt. Then silence. The lorry rings and vibrates to a clanging of metal as the locks are smashed and doors thrown wide open.
His lungs take in deep, spluttering gulps and he crawls along the filthy floor towards a blinding beam of light.Dedicated to: https://helprefugees.org
Papille reached the forest edge and crawled forward through rough grass until she could look down on the river below. She began to shake as she studied the steep descent, the wide expanse of silvery water and the unknown country beyond. She shuffled backwards and shrank into the shadows at the base of a tree. Her heart was beating uncomfortably and she was afraid that someone would hear it thumping in the dark, would come with a machete and cut it out and pin it to the tree, still pumping.
At her back was forest, dark and swarmy with the gathering night, and further back were the embers of her village and the blood stains where her parents died. Somewhere in front of her was the camp, a day's journey now, once she was over the river. She could not imagine it. What if it was full of strangers, or soldiers? Was she safer in the trees, here in Burundi? The camp was over the river, in Tanzania, where all was unknown. Between the two ran the Ruruby River, catching the last gleams of sunlight which threw up rose-pink and silver splinters of light, in sharp contrast to the dark countryside it sliced through. The river was the border here, out in the bush.
She sat back, hugging her knees, dipping her head and crooning quietly. "I want to go home ....... I want to go home." She began to sob. As she thought of all she had lost the tears rolled down her face, because she knew, with all the wisdom of her twelve years on earth, that she would not find a home again.
Behind her a bird began a piping call: pee-o, pee-o, pee-o. She knew it was a grey hornbill, calling in alarm. There were intruders. Papille held her breath and listened hard. Soon she was certain: something was creeping towards her, and it was something large. She hunkered down and kept absolutely still. There was rustling, breathing, the breaking of twigs. Then a shape shuffled forward, just yards away, moving close to the ground, clumsy and snuffling, and she almost screamed. But even as she gulped the air, her skin and voice freezing, the shape divided and broke up, and then at last she could make out two human figures crawling on their bellies between the trees. They were women. They crawled to the edge, as she had, and looked down.
"What do you think?" one whispered to the other.
"It's quiet," said the second. "It must be now, before dark. We should go back for the others. No, stop! What's that? Look there. Oh no. What are they doing?"
Papille saw one of them point and they both lowered their heads and gazed in one direction. She couldn't help herself. She crawled forward.
"What is it?" she said, tears in her jerky voice. The two women jumped, cried out and swivelled, then seeing Papille they scolded her, hissing angrily.
"Aah! Child! What you foing scaring us like that! What you doing here?"
Papille began to cry and they hushed her and whispered to her to come over and join them. Getting closer she could see that they were probably in their twenties, tired and grubby, but not unfriendly. Without further words all three crawled to the edge and looked down.
A family was trying to cross the river, dark figures against the silver light. A man was leading the way. He was tall and slim and had a heavy bundle tied to his back. He was a third of the way across, waist deep and prodding the river bed with a long stave. Behind him a young woman with a baby in a sling on her back and a large bundle in each hand, was standing very still in the shallows, the water up to her knees. The man moved on, water creeping rapidly up his chest. He stepped and seemed to slip, almost falling into the water and the watchers gasped, but the man pulled himself up and stepped back. Now he went a little higher up the river bed, prodding and working with slow deliberation. Papille chewed a finger and prayed for the little family.
Now the man seemed to rise out of the deep water as he found a shallower route and he turned, braced himself and waved his wife forward. She placed one bundle on her head and the other on her hip and began to move slowly. Her husband came towards her and held out the long stave. She was shorter than him and the water was soon up to her waist and the bundle on her hip was dipping in and out of the river flow. She grabbed at the end of the stave and seemed to sway, but then they both settled and the man held out a hand. The three watchers leaned forward willing the young family across.
The man drew his wife slowly towards him. She was almost there when voices started shouting from the far bank: four or five male voices, angry and challenging. Figures appeared on the far shore line, running along the water's edge, brandishing long pointed sticks and screaming at the man and his wife to go back to Burundi or they would die. Papille knew at once who they were: they were members of the Imbonerakure, a vicious militia group of mainly young men, some only teenagers. They had been formed to help suppress all opposition and in particular to stop the flow of refugees who crossed the border into Tanzania with their stories of atrocities in Burundi. She could see their uniform now: boots, dark trousers, t-shirts with the Imbonerakure logo and baseball caps. Three of them plunged straight into the river heading towards the little family.
The man turned and gestured to his wife to go back. She let go the stave and took a few quick steps but the bundle on her head slipped and she tried to grab it with one hand. She lost her balance and the wet bundle on her hip dragged in the racing water. She swayes and pulled the bundle out but was too hasty and now staggered in the other dircetion, twisted and screamed as she lost her footing. She fell backwards into the water, the baby beneath her, she thrashed briefly and was swept away. The man howled, staring at the boiling water as it narrowed downstream. But then the blue of the woman's clothing seemed to rise and check, as it snagged a rock. The woman's head appeared and she pulled herself half out of the water and Papille and the other women leapt up, shouted and pointed. The man saw her and began to work his way across. But the Imbonerakure had seen her too and were changing direction, shouting that they would kill her.
The man reached her first, pulled her out of the current and pushed her towards the shallows, then turned to face the militiamen. The first youth jabbed at him and he fended off the long stick, but another of them swung at the man's head. He dodged but the stick caught him a blow on the shoulder that nearly sent him sprawling. A third youth, shouting abuse, came at him now, thrusting the point of his stick at the man's chest and pushing him backwards. He staggered, but then there were other voices shouting, from the Burundi side now, and Papille could make out three ment sliding down the bank, running into the shallows on her side. Who were they? She stared in horror, but realised that there were no sticks, no boots, t-shirts or caps. These were not Imbonerakure! She cheered, urging them on. And soon the first man was helping the woman and the others waded quickly through the water to support the man. The Imbonerakure stepped back and jeered, arms aloft and shouting. Then they pointed upwards and Papille and the two women realised that they were standing in full view on the skyline and pulled back quickly.
One of the women turned to Papille and took her by the shoulders. "You on your own child?" Papill nodded. "No family here to help you?" She shook her head. "They have seen us and soon they will come looking and drive us away, or do far worse. We must run. You understand? You can come with us but you keep up. Understand?" Papille nodded, stifling a sob. "There is a path back here. Our family is waiting. Follow."
They dodged through the dark forest and ran downhill, skipping over stones and fallen branches, coming at last to a track beside the river. They turned south and ran for half a mile, slowing only when they came to a small clearing and a rough hut. They stood, gasping for breath. One of the women whistled and figures emerged from behind the hut, three or four children and three women, two older and bent. There was a huddle of talk. It excluded Papille and she bagan to shake again. Four men and a woman came out of the hut and there were more urgent words. It was almost dark and Papille could not see faces, but then she saw that among them were the man and the woman who had been in the river. But there was nothing on the woman's back! She cried out and ran forward.
"What happened to the baby? Where is the baby?"
The woman strethced out a hand.
"Come and see," she said.
Inside the hut a clndle flickered on a flat stone and the woman pointed. The tiny infant was asleep, wrapped in dry clothes and cocooned in a bed of soft grasses. Papille sank down beside him, touching his warm cheek.
"Will you try to cross the river again?" Papille asked.
"I must do whatever I can to keep him from harm," she said. "But it is hard to know what is for the best. It is hard to stay and hard to run."
"I know," she said. "Yes. I know."
The ocean was angry. Saniya could feel the pull and turn of it from her spot under the waves."They're not going to last," said Hai, slipping an arm around Saniya's waist to anchor them together. Hai was a larger mermaid, stronger in her swimming, and Saniya was grateful for the closeness."Don't say that," Saniya replied, round eyes tracking the small vessel above them."Boat's too low in the water. It'll tip."She knew Hai was correct; the boat was barely above the surface and being wrenched by the crashing waves. Saniya and Hai were on duty, to observe and protect their home. Few humans came treasure hunting to their caves anymore but they had started something new now, crowds of them rushing between the islands on flimsy boats. The mermaids had started finding bodies. They didn't want bodies – they didn't eat them or have a need for them. So they pushed them off into the deep and carried on. But they kept coming, tens of bodies at a time some nights.Hai had been the one to organize the vigils, two maids each night watching the route and protecting their home if needed.Another boat appeared up above, bigger than the precarious little thing. It was quick, peeling a white stripe between the crashing waves, rapidly coming up from the coast. Saniya's hope sang – surely the bigger boat would help. It wasn't that she liked humans, they were messy and inconvenient at best, but it was a poor thing to see a soul die early.The bigger boat slowed, curling a wide arc to rest half a league from the clinging craft. It paused, bobbing on the waves, and then the foam above was illuminated orange in a rippling circle of light."What was that?" Saniya asked as her eyes adjusted."They call it a flare: boats use them to give more light. They can't see like we do, even with the stars.""Poor things must be half blind.""They may as well be," Hai sighed, her gills exaggerating the movement."Is that why they've stopped, so they can find them with the light?""I think so," Hai said, letting go of Saniya and slinking off to get a better view. Saniya stroked her fins, watching Hai go, her thick muscles rippling the dark scales that shone along her back. Saniya was younger and paler, still growing really, more of a siren than a full creature of the water. Another flash above them, the orange light glinting off Hai."They're having difficulty finding the other boat," Hai called, swimming back over, "It's pointed in the right direction but no movement.""Should we help?""The rules are no intervention unless Agnetha consents.""I'm not talking about intervention. I could get up underneath them and give it a little push, it's too dark for them to see us.""They'd spot you a league off, pale fins," Hai said, leveling a look."They should have spotted them by now.""They should, but we need to see what the big boat does."It stayed where it was, tipping and pitching less than the smaller vessel which teetered on the edge of rolling over."It's got to go and help," Saniya said, worry tightening her gills. They must be able to see."Go get Agnetha," Hai replied, pushing at Saniya's silver scaled back."Hai, why aren't they doing anything?"The little boat tipped high, slamming back onto the surface and being silhouetted in white before it started to fracture, cracks of light starting to shine through."Go and get her!" Hai spat, shoving Saniya now. She swan, tail thumping as she went back down to their caves and past, on to the edge of the cold deep. She paused, worry making her gulp water too quickly, then made herself go into the dark.Down a way, far enough for her skin to chill, she saw the cave entrance. It was roughly kept, the litter of meals scattered outside. Almost triangular, the wide top tapered to the snubbed point she dawdled at. She pushed on, swimming forward with one hand on the wall, her gills flattening close to her skin. As she crept further into the cave she could see the shimmer of light ahead, the blue glow comforting as the moon above."Who comes to see me?"Saniya froze, tail stalling, as the voice reverberated around her. She tried to say her name but couldn't, instead swimming on and turning into the cavern she knew was ahead."What does a little fingerling mean coming into my resting place?""Mother Agnetha, I have been sent to fetch you," Saniya said, eyes widening at the curtain of jellyfish that ghosted through the vast space. The cavern was famous for them, they were favoured by Agnetha, but they were dotted like stars and the light gave Agnetha, reclined against the back wall, the glow of something holy.Agnetha was an ancient thing, mother of all the maids some said. She was a hulking monster, thick arms and dark skin closer to Hai than Saniya, almost like the whales that passed through some spring tides. She had the face of an old crone, wrinkled and fat, and two tails which she swished and twirled to move the waters to her whim. Her magic was that of the old sailor's songs, warning foolish men not to covet power they could not hope to understand."Who was coward enough to send you?" Agnetha asked, folding herself down to bring an eye level to Saniya."Not cowardly, she is stronger than me so better to see the threat. Hai, the pod leader, asked me.""Hai is a sensible little thing, this is so," Agnetha agreed, gills rippling and swirling the jellyfish around her. "What causes her to ask for me?""We were guarding the caves and saw a small boat, distressed in the storm. A larger boat has come, but it does nothing to help. The smaller boat is breaking up.""Hai wishes to intervene. Silly pod, you girls are. I will come. You may hold on to me, Saniya, my wake is not forgiving."Saniya started, shocked to hear her name spoken by that old voice. Agnetha smiled, the conical points of a predator showing shiny white."I remember all my girls, do not think because you are young I would neglect you.""Never, mother Agnetha."Saniya nodded, swimming to the arm offered and gripping on at the crook of the elbow. Agentha's skin was like a shark, sand rough, and the hair that trailed down her back sat in heavy braids. With a sigh Agnetha rose up and pushed off from the back of the cave wall. They were moving through the water at once, the jellyfish's brightness concentrating in a spiral of displacement.They were out of the cave, Saniya's scales flaking from the effort of keeping hold, and rapidly coming back into the warmer water, back to the glinting light of the stars. Hai most have felt them coming, she turned to watch the shape of Agnetha loom up and deposit Saniya beside her."You sought my counsel," Agnetha said, glancing up to the surface. Saniya followed her gaze and let out a choked shout – the little boat was in pieces taken by the waves but the bodies, the bodies were hanging in the water like those jellyfish. They were so tiny, only a handful of them grown full, all of them slack eyed and staring into the salt water. The waves tousled their hair, teasing dark rings about their faces."Why didn't they do anything?" she shouted, spinning to see the larger boat still there."They won't cross their imaginary lines. That's right, isn't it Agnetha? They drew maps and made up lines and now they hide behind them." Hai was nearly shouting as well, tail wagging dangerously to and fro, sharp teeth bared as she spoke."Yes Hai, they will not. They fear the wrath of other humans if they do. You wished to intervene?""I wished not to see more of their dead haunt our cove! They let them die.""What would you have me do, Hai? We cannot be seen or they will hunt us. We cannot intervene above the surface.""Shame them." Saniya said it before she could take her eyes of the dead children staring back. "Send them the dead, over their border, out of the sea. Remind them of their inaction.""Quite the temper on this little thing." Agnetha laughed, a growl of thunder around them."She is quick and wise," Hai agreed, stroking a hand over Saniya's back."I will do as you ask, Saniya, I have had my fill of human flesh for now. Let them see what they abandon in our ocean."Agnetha reared back, her two tails coming together and twisting, fins marking broad swathes through the water. Hai grabbed Saniya, holding her tight and curling over, protecting them from the whirlpool being formed beside them. Agnetha set the water spinning then cupped it, whispering words that sent a thrill and fear tingling over each of Saniya's scales, before throwing it up towards the bodies.The water span, collecting up the floating dead, then shot towards the large boat and beyond to the shore. A ripple of the old power settled around them, glinting in the starlight."They will mourn the children, at least. Humans are good at that," Agnetha said, watching the path of her magic. "I am retiring back to my rest. Send her again next time you seek me, Hai. I could do much with her."Agnetha turned and kicked her tails, buffeting them both as she went, sliding back towards the cool water and her dark, deep cave."That was not what I had planned for our watch," Hai said as she watched the water swirl and settle."I doubt it's what the humans had planned for their boat.""Your suggestion was good. Just.""It was better than what the other humans did."They bobbed in the water a moment longer, looking up to what fragments of the boat remained, then turned together and swam back to their caves.