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Authors: Ben Mikaelsen

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BOOK: Red Midnight
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25
THE STORM

THE FISH
makes us stronger. My body wakes as if from death, and my mind can think again. I know Angelina is better because she complains. She does not like the plastic bottles tied to her chest. She does not like the waves. She is hungry. She cries and scratches at her cracked and bleeding sores. The sun is hot, but she does not want to wear her hat. The hats that she made are now crushed and broken and rotted by the salt water. Still, we must throw them over our heads and shoulders like mats.

“Angelina,” I say. “You do not play our game very well if you complain.”

“I hate our game,” she tells me. Her voice is stubborn and angry. “You do not give me candy anymore.”

“There is no more candy,” I say. “So, what should I do?”

“I want to go home,” she says.

“The soldiers burned our home,” I say.

“I want Mama and Papa and Anita and Rolando and Arturo,” she says.

I take a deep breath because I do not know if what I say is good for a four-year-old girl to hear. Candy cannot take the hurt away from my next words. “Angelina,” I say. “The soldiers have killed all of them.”

Angelina turns and hits my knee with her small fist. Then she covers her ears with her hands. “I do not hear you,” she says.

“Okay, I will not talk,” I say.

We sail for a long time. I think many thoughts as I look ahead at the ocean. Angelina looks down at her knees, her hands still over her ears. She peeks up at me, but I pretend not to see her.

Suddenly Angelina kicks me. “I hate you if you do not talk to me,” she says.

“Okay, I will talk,” I say. “But you must take your hands off your ears.”

Very slowly, Angelina drops her hands to her knees.

“Angelina,” I say. “Something very bad is happening to you and me. I am scared like you. I am also hungry and hot. My body hurts, and I am very tired. But if we complain and give up, we will die.” I wait so Angelina will understand my words well. “Do you want to die?” I ask.

Angelina stares at me, then shakes her head slowly. “But I hurt,” she says. Her voice is scared.

“Where does it hurt the most?” I ask.

She points to her heart. “Inside here.”

Angelina's words make tears come to my eyes. “Yes, that is where I hurt, too,” I say. “But we cannot give up. I do not know where we are, but we must believe that we are close to land. I know when the weather is bad we cannot fish, so you must help me today. We will catch more fish and cut the meat into little pieces. The sun is hot. I think it will dry the meat before it becomes bad. We will have fish to eat later.”

“What can I do?” Angelina asks.

“You can help me hang up the meat. Okay?”

Angelina nods. “You need to catch fish first.”

I wipe the tears from my eyes and let my cracked lips smile a tired smile. “Yes, I will need to catch fish first.” I reach under the seat and pull out the fishing line and the hook.

“Hurry,” Angelina says.

I pretend to hurry, but I move with great care. On the ocean, mistakes are not forgiven. The first fish I catch is very small, and I throw it under the seat to use as bait. The next fish comes off the hook before I pull it from the water.

“Fish better,” Angelina says.

I try to fish better, but even when I am more careful, many fish fight and come loose from the hook. The few fish that I do catch are small, but still I cut these up and make thin strips. In each strip of meat I cut a hole. Angelina pushes a thin rope through this hole. When
she first starts, I think she eats more fish than she hangs. She also pushes little pieces of fish into the mouth of her broken doll, Maria. I do not scold her. It is good that she thinks she is helping. If luck will also help us, maybe we will catch a bigger fish.

Each time after I catch a fish, I check the line where it ties to the hook. If the line is worn, I tie it again. I do not dare lose the hook.

“Catch me a big fish,” Angelina says. “Then I can hang up more meat.”

I do not answer. Does she think I tell the hook what to catch?

But maybe the hook hears her words. The next fish I catch is big. Angelina reaches to grab the pieces of meat before I finish cutting. Now luck decides to help me. Angelina is still hanging pieces of meat when I catch a second big fish. I think fresh bait helps us. I cut up this meat and keep fishing.

When the rope hangs heavy with meat, I tie it high on the mast. It is like a clothesline that dries clothes. Because I tie the rope high, I hope the wind will also help the meat to dry.

It is late in the day when I cut up the last fish. I am tired and my body hurts, but I feel hope again. Hope is something that hunger and big waves have almost robbed from us. I know it is good what we have done today.

As night comes to the sky, the little cayuco pushes
ahead. It meets each new wave with a big splash. I hope that tonight I can be as strong as this small boat. I think I can. I am beginning this night on the open ocean with a full stomach. Today we have played our game of staying alive very well.

Already the meat is dried enough by the sun that it will not become bad, but still I leave the fish hanging so it can dry even more during the night. I wrap up the fishing line. Before I push it under the seat, I hold the small fishhook in my hand and look at it. I am very proud. Luck did not make this hook.

Tomorrow I will fish more if the waves let me. Tonight sleep comes and goes from my head. Always I am scared of the big waves that travel alone. I make sure that Angelina has her empty water bottles around her chest. I do not think she understands how the bottles will save her life. She thinks it is something I do to punish her.

This night is long, but I do not think anything can be worse than last night. Tonight I let myself eat dried fish. It is hard to chew, but it makes me strong and helps to keep me awake.

When morning comes, I am ready again to fish. I make another notch. I help Angelina count the notches. I let her discover what I already know. Now the cayuco has seventeen notches.

I look at the notches, and I wonder when we will see land. Uncle Ramos told me it would take maybe twenty
days. Now my mind thinks only of that number, but I know that maybe we will arrive sooner and maybe we will arrive later. I know we cannot live long enough to arrive much later.

This day we catch more fish. Again I let Angelina eat all the fish she wants. In the afternoon dolphins come beside the cayuco. For a long time they share the ocean with us as they jump and roll across the waves. Finally they leave, but Angelina and I talk about them until the stars come to the sky.

“The dolphins came to see me,” Angelina says.

“Yes, I think that is true,” I say.

“They smile and are happy,” she says.

“Yes, they smile and are happy,” I say.

“I wish I was a dolphin,” Angelina says.

 

The next three days come and go.

Each morning the hot sun begins a cruel climb into another sky without clouds. Each night stars fill the black night, and we follow the North Star. Always I am tired, but each hour I find some sleep. We fish until there is no more room to hang fish on the cayuco. I know that soon we will need water again. I tell Angelina we must take only small drinks.

With full stomachs, time passes more quickly. I can count notches number eighteen and nineteen. The morning I make notch number twenty in the cayuco, I look hard across the water, as if at this moment I will
see land. I want to cry when I see only ocean in every direction.

I have stayed brave by promising myself that in twenty days we will reach land. But I know the ocean currents and the winds do not listen to my hopes and dreams and promises. Maybe we have drifted away from our course. Maybe the ocean has already decided it is going to let us die.

I have no choice but to keep sailing. Two more days and two more nights pass. Now Angelina and I are lost on an empty ocean, unable to sleep, burned by the hot sky, and carried by winds and currents toward a place that maybe is not real. Maybe the United States of America is only a dream. Our lips are cracked and hard. Our tongues are dry and swollen in our mouths. When I wipe my cracked lips, there is blood on my hand. I stare at the blood, but what can I do?

I do not tell Angelina what I am thinking. Even with fish to eat, I feel the end of our lives coming. Each hour it is harder to move and to think. The sores eat at our bodies like big insects. My body is so weak now, it does not always do what I want. Angelina no longer speaks. She curls her body under the deck and stares with an empty look at the floor. We have no more water, so we must drink milk from the coconuts. The milk is good to swallow but always we have diarrhea. This only makes our sores worse and brings back our thirst.

I do not think we can live more than one or two
more days. This makes me mad. I think that the ocean is a coward. If it will fight me, I will fight back. But the waves do not grow smaller, and they do not grow bigger. Nothing changes, except our bodies grow weaker.

It is the night after I make notch number twenty-two that the ocean grows tired of waiting. Maybe now it thinks we are weak enough to kill. In the middle of the night, the stars disappear. By morning all of the sky above me is filled with clouds. The clouds are not white blankets high in the sky. These are dark heavy clouds that roll over the ocean with big bellies that hang down almost to the water. They bring with them winds that grab and beat the sail.

I know a bad storm is coming, and so I work hard to make everything ready. Big raindrops hit the deck as I roll the dried fish into the sleeping mat. I push the roll of fish far under the deck. I tie all the knots well and make sure the sail is ready to bring down.

It is the middle of the day, and I am still making the cayuco ready when something happens I do not understand. The wind stops, and the air becomes hot and still. The waves do not change, but the air feels heavy. For a long time it is like this, then the wind begins to blow again. Now it blows stronger and the swells grow until they are great mountains of ocean that pass under me. I loosen the knot from the seat and lower the sail. This is good, because soon the waves turn white and carry patches of foam on their backs like big shaggy monsters.

“Sit down on the coconuts,” I tell Angelina. “And hold on to the deck hard.”

Angelina obeys. She holds the deck with one hand, and she holds her doll with the other hand.

Spray stings my face as I fight to tie the sail to the sail poles. Now foam blows across the swells in long streaks. When the front of the cayuco hits a wave, spray and foam crash across the top of the deck and into my face. The wind whips the ocean. It takes water from the top of the waves and sprays it through the air like an angry cloud.

Now, without a sail, I paddle hard. The brave little cayuco pushes forward, fighting to climb the face of one big wave until I feel it balance at the top, and then we rush down the other side into the face of another wave. The wind blows so hard, the rain drives sideways like bullets across the deck.

There is something new and angry in this air that I have not known before. No longer does the ocean rise and fall with a rhythm. These waves do not follow each other. They come at the cayuco from every direction like great, angry walls of water. When the waves crash into each other, it is as if they want to fight. The waves hiss and suck like evil monsters.

I do not know which way to turn the cayuco. We are attacked from every side. The waves pound me as if I am their enemy. The water crashing across the deck is pulling the deck boards loose. I know if they come off, the
cayuco will fill with water. But I can do nothing. I look for the next wave and paddle even harder, breathing fast with fear.

And then it happens. I am paddling hard to meet one wave when I hear a roar and look to my right. Another wave, bigger than a truck, already lifts the cayuco from the side. The front of the wave is a big wall of water that curls over me from the top. There is no time to turn into the wave. The cayuco lifts like a small leaf.

I know what is happening, and I grab Angelina by her arm. With the other hand I hold on to the side. “We are tipping over!” I scream.

When the cayuco tips over, it is not something that happens fast. It tips slowly onto its side as if a big hand has pushed it down. Angelina and I fall into the water. When my head breaks above the surface to breathe, I look up at the big wave. It still hangs above us, deciding what to do.

“Hold on to me!” I scream to Angelina.

I hold her, and I feel her arms squeeze my neck. I see that she is still holding her doll as the ocean falls on us.

26
STARS ON THE WATER

AS THE WAVE
crashes down on us, I grab the cayuco, but it is ripped from my hand. Then the world explodes and we are underwater. We roll and turn and cannot breathe. Big hands of water pull and push against us. I hold my breath. Angelina's little body struggles in my arm, but I hold her tight to my chest. When my head breaks above the waves, I gasp for air and grab the cayuco again. Fear and water choke me. And then we are underwater once more.

Another wave crashes over the cayuco before I can find more air. This time I am able to hold on. Something snaps, and I see the mast break in the middle. Angelina screams and chokes on water. I do not let go of her. I am holding the side of the cayuco near the seat. From under the deck, everything we have floats out into the ocean. All around the cayuco there are coconuts
and water bottles. The dried fish floats past us, and I can only watch.

A wave tries to pull me away from the cayuco, but I will not let go. The ocean can take all of my food and all of my water, but I will not give it my life so easily.

The empty bottles tied around Angelina's chest hold her above the water. The wind screams, and Angelina screams. I do not know which one screams louder. Between waves, I reach and pull us forward to where I can hold on to the deck. When I do this, I push one foot under the deck to keep the waves from pulling me away. Now it is easier to hold Angelina, and the barrel guard helps protect us from the spray.

The cayuco rolls and twists in the angry ocean, but it cannot tip any farther. All of the lines are broken and tangled. The ripped sail spreads itself on the water and keeps the cayuco from rolling when big waves wash over us. The broken mast hits against the deck. There is nothing I can do but hold on. Still Angelina screams.

“I am holding you!” I yell at Angelina, but my words are lost in the wind. I think only time will quiet my sister.

And I am right. After I hold Angelina for a long time beside the cayuco, finally her screams soften to lonely cries. More time passes, and these cries become hiccups that grab at her chest. I feel sorry for Angelina, and I feel sorry for myself now. There is nothing more I can do but let the storm blow around us until we cannot hold on
anymore. And then? I do not like to think about then. Then we will lose our game.

The low clouds that roll past touch the tops of the waves. Swells rise and fall like the chest of a great animal. The ocean is alive and it breathes. When the ocean breathes, wind whistles over the waves and grabs at us. Each time another big wave crashes into the cayuco, it takes another breath of my hope. I know now that the ocean does not care. It does not care when it takes my food and my water, and it does not care now if it kills a scared boy and his little sister.

My shoulders grow numb from holding on for so long. My hands bleed, and salt-water spray stings my eyes. It feels like hours since we have tipped over, but still the storm screams around us like big cats fighting in the sky. I take a loose piece of rope and tie Angelina to the cayuco. I am too weak to hold her anymore. Still she holds her broken doll tight in her fist.

I do not know how long the storm blows or for how long I hold on to the side of the cayuco. Time has disappeared again. The sky grows darker, but I do not know if the storm grows worse or if night has come. I think it is night that has come because the wind does not scream so loud anymore. The waves do not attack me.

I look at Angelina. The rope cuts deep into the skin of her chest, and her face is the face of a ghost. She looks at me with eyes that have no feelings except haunted fear.

“Do not give up!” I scream. “The storm is ending!”

Angelina's empty eyes only blink at me.

I wait until the wind and the waves lose their anger before I crawl out onto the sideboard and pull the cayuco upright. It is dark now, and the sky is black. Because the mast is broken in the middle, the cayuco tips upright with one hard pull. I lift Angelina aboard.

I do not know what to do now. The ripped sail flaps like a loose sheet from the broken mast. Everything is gone, the coconuts, the fish, the water, the machete, everything. I feel under the seat. Even the fishhook and line are gone. The only thing still tied to the cayuco is the paddle, and it is broken.

Like a machine, I scoop water from the cayuco with my hands, even if my arms do not want to move. I do not know why I do this. Maybe it is because my mind knows nothing but our game. Maybe staying alive is a game that all people play. Maybe it is the only game that anybody really knows. Even now when death sits beside me in the cayuco, I pretend to play the game one last time.

When my arms need to rest, I sit and stare out across the dark water. I do not paddle very hard to meet the next wave, because I have no more strength and because my heart has lost all hope. If a wave tips me over now, this will be the end. A candle does not burn when there is no wax left.

It is now, as I stare across the dark waves with all hope lost, that I first see the flicker of lights. They
bounce above the waves, and I think they are only stars. But clouds still hide the stars, and stars do not look like a string of lights that float on the waves. My mind does not want to understand what I am seeing, because already it has given up. I blink my eyes again and again but the lights do not disappear. My breath catches in my chest.

“Angelina, look,” I say.

Angelina does not look up. She lies on the floor of the cayuco. I know her body is not dead because her chest still moves, and she still holds the broken doll tight in her fist. Nothing, not even a storm or tipping over, has made her let go of her doll.

I see the lights, but I am too weak to paddle. The waves and the wind blow from behind me and push me forward. I cannot tell how far away I am, but that does not matter. I must not give up. With weak arms, I lift the broken paddle and drop it into the water. I do not think this helps to push the cayuco very much, but hope makes me try.

For a long time, I do not think the lights come any closer. Maybe they are only a dream. But slowly the bright lights stretch farther and farther along the shore. After more time, I can see that this is a very big city. Nowhere in Guatemala are there so many lights. The lights ahead of me keep my arms moving. I do not let my mind think that this is the United States of America. These lights are only the dream of somebody who is almost dead. Yes, this is only a dream. But it is a good
dream. I keep paddling, because I do not want this dream to end.

I do not know how much more time passes before the shadow of the shore appears. Now I have stopped paddling. The waves take me toward a stone wall that reaches out from shore. I try to paddle again, but my arms do not obey me. A man stands on the wall and stares at me as I float past him. I let the wind and the waves carry the cayuco forward. Everywhere there are lights. I hear music and people talking and shouting. There are the sounds of motors and horns.

Ahead, there is one building with brighter lights than the others. Many people are walking along the beach. I force my arms to move the paddle. The cayuco drifts forward. Lights shine across the water like long tangled ribbons. With a weak voice that does not sound like mine, I say, “Look, Angelina. Look at the lights.”

Angelina still does not lift her head to look.

Now people on the beach turn to look at the cayuco that floats toward them out of the dark. Some of them point. Still I try to pull at the water with the paddle. I must not stop. But each stroke feels like my last. And then the cayuco scrapes against the sand and stops. The paddle drops from my hands into the water.

I look up.

Many people have gathered. I do not understand the English that they speak, but later I am told that one man shouted very loudly, “It's some of those stinking boat
people!”

I hold out my hand. “
Necesitamos ayuda
,” I say in Spanish, trying to tell them that we need help.

“Get out of here!” another man shouts. “This is a private club!”

I do not need to know English to understand the anger in the man's eyes and in the eyes of many others.

But then a tall woman pushes in front of the man. She has a kind look in her eyes. She kicks her shoes off and runs into the water to grab and hold the front of the cayuco. Now others also run into the water to help her. Together they pull the heavy cayuco up onto the sand.

Then hands reach down to help me. I cannot stand, so they must lift me. The tall woman reaches into the cayuco and lifts Angelina in her arms. The plastic doll drops onto the sand. I point, and the woman reaches down and grabs the doll. She carries Angelina and the doll up the beach.

There is much I do not remember because I am so weak, but I remember that people hold my arms. I cannot stand, and so they carry me. A van comes with bright lights that flash. It takes Angelina and me away. I do not know where we go, until they carry us into a bright room and I see nurses and doctors. In Guatemala, we do not go to hospitals because we do not have money. Nurses and doctors are for rich people.

They try to take Angelina away from me into a dif
ferent room. Angelina screams with a voice that is too loud for a little four-year-old girl. They bring her back, and she holds me tight. A nurse comes to me and she speaks in Spanish. “
Como te llamas
?” she says, asking me my name.

“Santiago,” I say. “Santiago Cruz.”

“I am Juana,” she says, still speaking Spanish. “And what is this little girl's name?”

“This is my sister,” I say. “Her name is Angelina. Please do not take her away from me.”

“We won't,” Juana says. “Where is your home?”

I do not know how to answer this question. “We come from Guatemala,” I say.

“And where are your parents?”

“They are dead.”

The nurse looks at me with eyes that I do not think believe me. “Then how did you get here?”

“My sister and I, we sailed across the ocean in a cayuco.”

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