Beyond the Surface

Story by
Nov 4 · 8 min read

The body, at first, resembled the underbelly of an upturned, child-size boat. The black jacket covering the body was smooth, puffed up by the lapping current of the water. The man who drew it in, a fisherman, had thrown his metal hook into the ocean. It clasped and caught on the frayed, hemmed collar. He reeled it in, his rough calloused hands turning the fishing rod swiftly. He thought he had a catch and quickly pulled the heavy lump ashore. Bile threatened to release from the fisherman’s throat when the body involuntarily flipped away from him. He threw the rod into a pile of melting snow. The rod stuck in the snow kept the body at bay, swaying in the water, back and forth, neither here nor there. Just floating. Forgotten and unwanted. “A bad omen,” the fisherman muttered once the shock subdued. A bad omen sent by the gods he so believed in.

So indulged in his self-pity, his shock and shaken state, he failed to notice the light brown hair, the halo around the body’s white face, a pointed nose and small thin lips, forming an almost-smile. A sad smile. A smile that didn’t quite reach the boy’s muddy brown eyes. He didn’t notice the name tag sewn in the inside of the boy’s jacket, which was actually a size too big for him. It was sewn messily, in cursive, and it wasn’t his. The name read Zachary, but his name was Yousef. It wasn’t his jacket either. His jacket was brown and a size too small for him and had a patch with numbers sewn onto it right above his heart, just below his collarbone, half hidden in the flap of the collar. In the jacket, one of the pockets, the one without a hole, held a palm-sized Quran in it, given to him by his father. He didn’t know how to read it, but sometimes he would take it out discreetly after they had stopped walking for the night, hiding it, so his worried mother wouldn’t notice.

The fisherman didn’t see any of this. He turned his shaking back to the water as his comrades hauled the body in, solemnly quiet, their breaths forming wordless clouds in the cold, brittle air. This wasn’t the first time the fisherman had hauled in a once living person, but never before had it been child-sized.

Emilia stood holding her faded pink rabbit to her chest as she watched her father, the fisherman, hold in sobs while his friends with burly mustaches gently laid down a boy roughly the size of her onto a wooden, rickety sled. Her breath came out in similar puffs, fogging the frosted window pane she stood behind. Her yellow hair curled around her soft chin. Her face was pale, but the kind of pale one gets from a long winter. Not the pale one gets from being submerged in icy freezing waters for 24 hours. It had a tint of tan, leftover remnants from a summer long ago, that promised return.

Emilia turned twelve nine-and-a-half days ago. Her only gift, a chocolate bar wrapped in tinfoil, sat on a stool near the kitchen fire. She ate a piece a day, and no one else was allowed to touch it. There were nine-and-a-half pieces left. On the fourth piece of chocolate, unknown to Emilia, the boy named Yousef had been running for his life from explosions, half dragged by the hand of the previous owner of the long, black coat. Emilia had been perched upon her stool, happily nibbling on the smooth, creamy and rare prize while her parents watched her proudly. They wanted her to have the best, and let her believe that she was.

Emilia pressed her pink, pudgy nose to the cold glass, wiping away the fog with the sleeve of her beige wooly sweater. The men were coming closer to the cabins, where their wives and children watched curiously from their windows. The men turned a corner, and Emilia lost sight of them. Emilia tore herself away from the window, grabbed her coat, reached for her precious chocolate, and pushed open the wooden door to her family’s wooden cabin. Sharp wind bit her red nose and chapped her pink lips. Snow crunched underneath her favorite, tattered pair of once-black oxfords. Craftily stepping into pre-made, pressed-down footsteps, she directed herself towards the fish house that the men had disappeared into.

The door was ajar and the huddle of men in thick winter coats looked like one large entity, a confused bear. Muffled conversation floated above them as they wondered what to do about the body. Where did it come from? Should they look for its owner before they buried it? Should they bury it? Ask the doctor to examine it? Emilia stood in the door frame, pinching her nose to stop the reeking fumes of fish carcasses from making her gag. Her father turned, his paternal instinct sensing her, and waved his hands at her.

“No pet, leave. This is not for you to see.”

His eyes were sad, the sides of his mouth dry with vomit. Emilia stood, watching flakes of melted snow drop from her father’s shoulders as they trembled. Her father looked at her with sudden fear. Not of her, but of what could so easily happen to her. Flashes of his daughter, upturned, boat-like. Her face pale, the kind of pale one gets from being submerged in icy, freezing water for 24 hours. A halo of blond curls. Her red nose no longer red. And his shoulders trembled. Emilia saw them tremble, but did not understand why.

He stood there until the group dispersed, having decided to wait until morning, with a fresh start and fresh minds. Emilia’s father took her by the hand and half dragged her back to the cabin. One of the men returned and tapped her father’s back. He turned to speak to him, their voices hushed and solemn. For a moment Emilia’s father’s fears were forgotten, and in that moment Emilia wriggled away, back to the reeking fish cabin.

The body had been left on the sled, drowning in his black jacket. A feed sack had been put over him, covering him head to toe. Emilia crept towards the makeshift coffin, and lifted the sack. Someone had closed the eyelids that covered his muddy brown eyes. Thin blue veins traced his pale skin. Emilia removed the sack all the way, dropping it to the floor. She saw the black jacket and how it was a size too big. She peeked into the coat’s pocket and noticed the soggy book. She lifted the flap of the jacket and picked at the cursive-stitched name and patch. She noticed the halo of brown hair. She almost-smiled back at his almost-smile. It didn’t reach her eyes. Emilia stood still, watching her breath become puffs of smoke. She shuffled through her coat pockets, her hands feeling for the chocolate bar that had frozen in the form of half-melted chocolate, distorted, uneven. Emilia, fingers numb, peeled away the tin foil wrapping and broke off a piece of the nine-and-a-half pieces left. Number eight-and-a-half. It clicked as she broke it and she flinched subtly at the interrupting noise. She shifted the collar of the jacket, and picked at the chest pocket of the boy’s collared shirt that clung to his thin body. It came loose. She lifted it tenderly, carefully, and placed the piece of chocolate inside, tucking it in with her finger.

A moment passed as she stared solemnly, hands clasped, at the boys closed eyelids, puffy, frostbitten. A tear trickled down Emilia’s cheek and nose. She watched the tear as it dropped onto the boy’s jacket. Emilia wiped her face, then began to shift the jacket, buttoning it up so he wouldn’t get cold. She kicked the feed sack into a corner, and snatched out an itchy woolen blanket that was tucked in a bucket and draped it over the boy. She covered his face and feet and tucked the blanket to his sides, as if tucking a child into bed. She leaned down, kissed the boy’s blanket-covered forehead and ran back to her cabin before her father or anyone could notice.

The men brought in the town doctor the next day to inspect the body. They removed the neatly tucked blanket. The doctor poked and prodded at the boy’s eyes, his hands, his chest. He didn’t notice the jacket was too big for him, or that the name sewn into it wasn’t his. He didn’t see the absence of a holy book, or a sewed on patch. Nor did he see the chocolate-shaped bump that lay right above his heart, just below his collarbone.

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4 Responses to "Beyond the Surface"

  1. Arif Kabir says:

    Masha’Allah I loved this piece. It was very sad but a needed reminder of how much our refugee brethren are going through. Thank you.

  2. Aadil says:

    Very beautiful. But with an important message.

    Don’t fully understand the coat bit though. Please explain.

    • Halah says:

      Jazakallahkhair!

      Yes, I believe I failed to mention more detail about that, and I think I missed out some points. The coat that the boy is wearing isn’t his, it’s a coat he has had to take from someone else, because he didn’t have any clothes of his own that fit. Then I talk about the boy’s actual coat, which has a patch sewn on it (referencing refugee status). I forgot to mention that the Quran is in his current big jacket. Hope that makes sense. Thank you for pointing this out!

    • Aadil says:

      Thank you! And keep it up, mashaAllah.

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