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Small boat

The boat is smaller than she’d expected. They’d been looking for something small, a fishing vessel that would come straight on to the beach at Hiribya, but this is barely more than a rowing boat, its bow pulled up onto the sand. There is a single short mast with a grey sail in a heap on the floor, and two oars with a single oarsman. He’s a big, hairy man wearing only a cloth around his waist, and he’s sitting on the widest bench in the boat, his legs stretched out in front of him. The other crewman, the captain, is standing on the beach arguing with a long line of people. It’s just daylight, a time of long shadows and a chill breeze.

‘They can’t all be going on that boat. It’s too small.’

The captain them and beckons them over. ‘Come, come, little family, come on. Sit in the bows. It’s more comfortable there.’

Joseph passes over the pouch of gold and they climb in, stepping over the oarsman’s thick legs. He takes no more notice of them than he does of the seagulls circling overhead. There’s a tiny bench at the bows and she sits down there, her knees nearly coming up to her chin, the baby tucked in the warmth between her breast and her legs. He’s perfectly happy, wide awake, watching her watching him. 

‘How much was it?’ she asks, looking up at her husband.

He doesn’t answer immediately. He’s trying to fit his long legs across the boat, claiming some space as the other people crowd in behind them. The oarsman is sitting up now, keeping his own space clear. Fifteen people altogether, she thinks, fifteen people in a boat surely not meant for more than six, and more want to come. There are always more people than there are boats.

‘How much was it?’ she says again.

He looks down at his feet, pressed against the side of the boat. ‘All of it. I’m so sorry.’

‘All of it? All the gold?’

I should have negotiated myself, she thinks. I could have got him down to half. I wouldn’t have said we had all that to start with. I should have done it, but he wanted to take charge of something, and I don’t blame him. He’s been helpless since this all started. Being pushed around by angels is still being pushed around.

‘Sorry,’ he says again.

‘It’s OK. It’s done. What happened to the donkey?’

‘I gave him to the innkeeper. In lieu of our bill.’

‘Our bill? For one night?’

‘Well, it’s not as though he could come with us. Pity, I’ll miss him. Miserable old beast, but he carried you a long way, you and the babe.’

He’s given almost twenty pieces of gold to that crook of a captain, and our donkey for a single night of hospitality. He’s a good carpenter, but it’s a wonder he’s ever made enough to live on. He’ll never make a businessman. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t have a wife already. She looks at him, and laughs. He’s a kind man, that’s all that really matters, kind and warm. A good man to spend a lifetime with. 

The captain pushes the boat until it is floating free, rocking slightly until it finds its level. He jumps in and walks to the stern, his balance perfect, treading on the feet and hands of anyone unlucky enough to be in his way. The oarsman begins to pull and the boat turns around and points out to sea, leaving her able to see the beach as it diminishes into the distance. She can see people waiting for the next boat, refugees trying to get away from the land of soldiers with pitiless faces and long swords. She’s heard rumours of what happened after they left Bethlehem, of soldiers going from house to house, of screaming women and massacred children. Seven, eight, maybe ten babies – who knew? The tale grew in the telling, but something terrible must have happened to make all these people try to get away. Only a few people risk the sea route to Egypt, but Joseph had been adamant it was the safest way.

‘We’ll just jump on a fishing boat and we’ll be there before you know it.’

She turns and looks at the sea, stretching out to meet the sky in the blue-white distance. This isn’t the sea he knows, not the gentle sea of Galilee, where he’d spent his boyhood swimming and fishing with his friends. This is the great sea that stretches all the way to Rome, and this is a very small boat.

She touches the rusted iron clamp that holds the bow together, and is not reassured. It feels more rust than iron, and is probably older than she is. 

‘Stop worrying,’ he says, gently. ‘We’ve made it this far. It’s only a couple of days’ journey. We’ve got water, we’ve got food, we’ve got each other.’

There’s a lurch as the oarsman stands up and begins to haul up the sail, arm over arm, and the boat swivels before the wind and begins to move faster than she’d thought possible. 

A couple of days, she thinks. A couple of days in this, non-stop, right across the Nile estuary, miles and miles of this. At least the wind is in the right direction.

For a while it’s tolerable. There are the expected privations, the heat, the thirst, the demands from the other passengers to share their water. They share a little, but she’s breastfeeding and thirsty all the time, and they’ve only two bottles to last the whole voyage. There’s relieving herself over the edge of the boat, a scary and undignified experience accompanied by catcalls from some of the men. Joseph bristles, but nobody is stupid enough to start an actual fight on a tiny, overcrowded boat in the ocean.

Some people get sick, vomiting noisily into the sea, but she’s fine, and she begins to relax. The water is so blue, more blue than even her new wrap, a soft colour that mirrors the sky and hypnotises her as she watches the endless little waves. There are dolphins who come up alongside them and play for a time, then disappear as silently as they came. As the sun goes down and the heat evaporates, they huddle together in the cold. It’s blessedly clear and the stars are bright above them, making navigation simple. The oarsman sleeps for a while as the captain keeps watch, and presently she sleeps too. 

She wakes in the small hours to change and feed the baby. There’s some grumbling from the other passengers, woken by his crying. 

‘What shall I do?’ she asks. ‘If there’s any way of quieting a babe, other than by changing and feeding him, I’d like to know it. I’m doing the best I can.’

She throws the soiled linen overboard, an extravagance, but she can’t face keeping its smelly contents in the heat of the boat for another day. The baby feeds, emptying both breasts, and gives a satisfied burp before settling back to sleep. Truly, she couldn’t ask for a better son, and she curls herself around him.

Suppose I smother him? I can’t sit any differently. There’s just no room. At least he can’t fall overboard like this. Joseph is snoring, oblivious, his head propped up on their little bundle of possessions, and she looks down at him fondly. My husband. Not the one I would have chosen, but I couldn’t have done better. He’s kind, he’s got a trade, and he believed me. Who else would have done? What other husband would go along with this?

She wakes to cold water in her face, and sits up with a start. It’s just a splash, she thinks, and looks around. Just a little splash coming over. She breathes, trying to stay calm, but there are definitely waves, real waves, and there’s a cold dampness in the air. Grey light is coming from the east, enough for her to see the waves and to realise they are in open water with no coast to their left. Either they’re in the Nile estuary, or they’re lost.

The boat lifts and smacks down hard in a horrible pitching motion, and now she feels real fear, gut-gripping fear that makes her grip the baby too tightly so he wriggles in her arms. She hears a creak behind her and remembers that rusted clamp on which all their lives depend, and which every wave stresses a little bit more. The oarsman grunts, and stands up. How he keeps his feet she doesn’t know, but he lets down the sail in seconds, sits back down and braces his feet. He starts to row in long, purposeful strokes that make the veins on his thick shoulders stand out. He shouts something at the captain, who shakes his head She can’t hear what he’s saying, but Joseph shouts something back. 

He clambers over the other passengers, squashes onto to the bench next to the oarsman and takes the right hand oar. Together they pull, each pull punctuated by a grunt from the oarsman, and in a few strokes they’re in perfect time. She’s proud of him now, her fit, strong husband. Between us we’ll be fine, she thinks, he can do the heavy work and I’ll do the business, and maybe we’ll have a few more babies to go with this one.

The sun must be up by now, but it’s invisible behind yellow-grey clouds. She can smell salt, and something else, a burnt smell, like a candle that’s just been extinguished. The waves are ceaseless, and getting higher, some higher than the boat. For a while there’s just pitching, and the grunts of Joseph and the oarsman, and everyone is soaked. The captain begins to bail, and throws a pail to the front of the boat for the passengers to bail as well, and it goes on like this, hour after hour. She’s shivering, clutching the baby to her breast for dear life, knowing that one false move would tip them both into the water.

She doesn’t notice it get worse, she just registers that it has done, that the waves are coming in faster than the men can bail. The captain screams something down the boat and begins to throw things overboard. Food, water bottles, anything that is weighing the boat down. A man grabs their bundle and she screams, but the sound is lost in the wail of the wind, and he throws it into the waves. It comes apart, and she sees the wooden box of frankincense tipping sideways in the water, then disappearing. I have nothing left but the myrrh, she thinks, in the little jar tied to my waist. Myrrh, for wounds and corpses. 

A big wave slaps them, all but swamps them, and the water is almost to the edge of the boat. With a roar the oarsman stops pulling and gives his oar to Joseph, then snatches the pail and bails like a madman, dip, throw, dip, throw, the water flying high over the side of the boat, and gradually they rise, until she sees, ahead, a bigger, darker wave, and she knows its all over.

Still the baby sleeps, and she is glad. Let him sleep until the water takes him. She pulls his face close to hers and breathes in, trying to smell his sweet warmth, but all she can smell is brine and her own sweat and fear. The wind is a hissing snarl around them, louder even than the lashing waves.

The wave smacks over them, drenching everything, and she lifts up the baby, trying to keep him out of the water as the boat lurches. There’s a horrible creak from behind her, from that iron clamp in the bows, and they are listing sideways. The oarsman keeps on bailing, and she wonders at his optimism, about the fight that lives in him until the end. 

The baby cries, not his usual complaint of hunger or discomfort, but an enraged scream that cuts through the wind, the waves and the creaking of tortured wood and iron. It’s a scream of fury, not fear, and she almost laughs. Her baby, the survivor, so angry at having his sleep disturbed.

And it ends. The boat tips, slides down and sideways, flying along the wave, gliding smoothly as  it subsides into a gentle swell. The wind calms, the random gusts settling into a steady breeze pushing westwards. The oarsman throws out a few more buckets of water, then passes the bucket back to a passenger and takes his seat again alongside Joseph. He pulls them along a little further, then raises the sodden sail. As the wind catches it she looks around, and sees land on her left. Egypt, surely. They’re through the estuary, and on their way to shore. She looks behind them, and sees no trace of the storm, nothing but flat blue water all the way to the edge of the world.

They dry off in a heat as fierce as the storm that preceded it, the salt stiffening their clothes and making their skin itch. It crusts around the baby’s eyes, and she tries to wipe them clean. He looks into her eyes, and smiles, a real wide smile that reaches her heart. 

‘Hey, baby,’ she says, and kisses him.

They disembark on another beach, one that looks just like the one they left behind in Judea, a stretch of golden sand and a few fishing huts set back above the high tide mark. Two fishermen stand at the edge of the beach, watching the passengers as they stumble, exhausted, up towards the grassy land.

One of the watchers spits on the sand.

‘Go back where you came from,’ he says.