Creative Writing Ink January 2017 Winner

Lost at Sea – Deborah Guzzi

Sabah, Malaysia 2017


I do not know my age. What is age to the Sama Dilaut who pass the days by sun or sea? I have carried five souls, only two live. You may call me mother.

‘Anak, children, come!’ I wave from the beach. Waves lap my swollen ankles and the wind whips a damp cotton shawl about my womb.

My eldest, Kembang, works her way through the island’s mangroves carrying firewood. Her eyes sparkle brighter than the light on the waves. My son, Enak, bobs up from the sea, just in time to hear me. He sports a toothy grin. A milkfish thrashes on his spear.

‘Kembang. Look Enak has dinner!’

The first pains of labor roll through me. I double-over in pain. Kembang drops the firewood and runs to me. She brushes the hair from my face and rubs my back in between my shoulders. There is worry in her almond eyes. She helps me into our dugout retrieves the wood placing it beside me.

‘Don’t forget the water, dear heart.’ I squeeze her hand. Taking the hollow gourds from the boat’s bottom she gathers freshwater from the stream nearby and returns as Enak reaches me.

Enak pushes us off and swims alongside. His net bag holds a day’s forage: cockles, fish, and a few crabs.

‘Mother, breathe,’ Kembang frets. She dampens her shawl in the fresh water and wipes my brow.

Our pagmunda’s flotilla—five dugouts—clusters nearby on the lea side of the island. We have the only lepa lepa moored among six families in double dugouts, Bapa—Father—is so proud of the lepa he built. As Kembang rows, I pray. Ngelog-ngelog o embo’, please bear us (your children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren) forgiveness, we are on our way, do not call upon us. I do not wish to die for this child. As if in reply to prayer, the water of Lahad Datu Bay smooths.

‘Mother,’ Enak yells in the water, ‘when will we eat?’

‘You cook, Mother’s busy!’

I see the hunger in their eyes. We came to the shallows at high tide; it is now low. The seatrout Father speared and cooked at sunrise feels long ago. My stomach growls as well but I will not eat. When we reach the lepa, Bapa, Father, pulls me onboard. My waters flow across the deck. Labor begins in earnest. The sun sets much like the look of concern on Bapa’s brow.

‘You two, make your Mama comfortable.’

I lie crosswise beneath the lepa’s kokan—roof—wishing for some softness, finding none on the woven grass sleeping mat.  Enak pushes netting behind my head to prop me up. ‘Kembang, start the fire, Father’s tired.’ Dried palm fronds crisp under larger twigs in the earthen hearth. Burning bits of fire and ash drift through the darkening air. Sitting cross-legged on the deck Kembang and Enak clean and shell the catch.

‘The water boils, put it all in now, Kembang.’

‘I know, Mother, rest now, breathe. The stew will be ready soon.’

I reach for a knife to prepare the cassava roots.

‘Mama, lay down,’ Kembang scolds.

The pain comes fast now. I want to scream but I don’t want to scare the children especially Kembang. I worry Kembang will never flower, never become a woman. She is so small. How can breasts be made with so little meat on her bones? Now, the new one is on its way. We are already so crowded. This is not the life I wish for her.

‘Anak do not scold their mothers,’ I force a smile and then wince as the pain comes again.

Father dives into the sea and returns with the aduwata—our group’s midwife. I sit straighter as she comes aboard. Placing a hand on my shoulder, she clucks and pushes me back. She shoos Enak and Father off the lepa.

‘Go someplace else, aye? Go see what iyang—old mother—made for you to eat.’  

Enak looks long at the boiling stew.

‘I want to stay, I caught—’

‘Yes, I saw the milkfish you caught, we’ save some for you, go now.’

Kembang huddles in the corner twisting her hair about her finger. She worries for herself, for me, and a little bit for the one who comes. She knows she must be a wife soon. Soon, she will have to leave. If this one comes, it will be very soon. I see her glance at the moon. She sits pulling a nail-ended stick through the dried pandan leaves.

‘Iyang— Mother,’ she cries, as a rough strip cuts her hand.

‘Ngelog-ngelog o embo’,’ the midwife mutters between my upraised knees.

How still the ocean is, a portent?

Pain and hunger fill me. Sun gives way to a sky salted with stars. Kembang curls in among the strips she made. She will weave mats in the morning. Enak has not returned. Thank Allah for our friends. My labor slows. The midwife rubs me with oil. She cooes when I wince. She hands me a bit of leather to bite. The sky lightens. Birds rise in flocks cawing. Mosquitoes swarm. I pray for the soul to come with the morning’s light. The ocean answers. The lepa cradles me. The pains come faster and faster. A head crowns. The cord around its neck. My breath stops; it has none. Frantically, the midwife cuts the cord, sucks fluid from its mouth, and slaps its bottom—nothing. Sighing, she rises from her squat and places it upon my chest. No soul resides here, an empty gourd, an unripe fruit remains.

My moaning has woken Kembang. She crawls to me. Tears streak the day old sun-powder on her cheeks. Unspent tears flood my eyes. This one is not the first of mine to go unborn. I hug them both, the living and the dead.

‘Kembang, stop fussing now, let mother rest, get father,’ the midwife scolds. She pulls Kembang gently from me into her arms and hugs her. ‘Get the lantern and signal Bapa on the other boat.’

In the distance I can see his shadowed form standing, spear straight against the rising sun, proud, free, and not knowing. Enak is under his arm. Their distant forms lower into our canoe, soon, it pulls alongside the lepa. I watch my husband’s face cloud cast as he scans the lepa for signs of new life. He sees none. I fold into myself. He comes to me kissing my forehead, wiping the corners of my eyes, smoothing my hair.

‘Mother, drink some broth, eat a bit, rest, there’s nothing more to do. Please, my treasure, my heart, rest.’                                                   

He turns away as the afterbirth comes, dry, shriveled, lifeless as its twin. The midwife removes the banghai-corpse and the afterbirth. It will not swim the sea to protect a living child. They will be buried together on our island.

‘Bapa, please fetch the imam we must pray.’

‘Mother,’ Kembang calls, ‘I will warm the food. Enak, maybe you can catch another fish?’

Kembang, do not mourn, or fear. Allah knows best. Now you will leave us for many moons. We have found a land cousin for you on Saba. It is for the best.

When the imam arrives, he places the not-born with its small head toward the bow and its feet toward the stern. Prayers rise on a water-soft wind and swollen tide. Together we call to the ancestors. Ngelog-ngelog o embo’, please bear us (your children, grandchildren or great grandchildren) forgiveness, we are on our way, do not call upon us, again today.