Photograph by Gilles Roudière, 2007
The boy doesn’t shut his chattering. “Again, Baba! Again! Again!” he volleys, body jerking rigid with excitement, until his baba lets loose a laugh against the glittering sea and dives back beneath the waves. Rubber flippers pitch into the air like flat black tombstones and disappear in a flick of foam.
“Baba!” the child caws, fat fingers reaching out to his vanished father.
Instinctively she puts a hand around the writhing little body, anchoring him firmly to the rock. “You want to fall in?” she snaps.
He ignores her. Like an infant sorcerer he strains his fingers forward, as if trying to conjure his father from the blue.
As a small girl, she used to swim in the sea with her brothers. She can remember the feel of the cool water on her skin and the free pleasure of twisting her body and diving down to where the water was chill, of propelling herself smoothly forward with her thin arms, hair streaming wetly behind her, lungs clamped until she could hold her breath no more.
The sun is hot. She feels perspiration on her forehead beneath her silk headscarf, the black fabric of her clothing clings sweatily to her shoulders and chest. She glances up at the car waiting alone on the roadside for their return, and suddenly, while the sea surface is still flat, she yanks the child and struggles up the rocks with him, tripping and stumbling at the hem of her abaya in her haste. “Oww,” the boy protests, his voice whining into tears.
She pulls him behind the car and clamps a hand over his mouth, her eyes ignoring. Peering from behind a headlight, she watches for the boy’s father to resurface. He has large lungs, the boy’s father; he can fetch pink-flecked shells and coral from the seabed.
He rises spurting a jet of water from his mouth. When he sees the empty rock his face puckers into a frown. He scans the horizon right to left as his arms tread slowly through the water like seaweed drifting. He can’t see them up behind the car.
The boy is squirming beneath her hand, tears welling. He has grazed a knee on the rocks and beads of dark blood prick the skin. “Shhh,” she says, watching the distant figure lift himself from the sea. Water falls from his shoulders, silver in the bright sunlight. He stands flat in his black rubber flippers.
“Alev,” he calls along the empty coast. “Asim?”
“Be quiet,” she whispers at the boy, “it’s hide and seek.”
The man’s eyes are still scanning the rocks, confused by their disappearance. The boy twists beneath her grip and his small teeth bite into the flesh of her palm. His eyes those of a snared animal. She lets out a cry and almost loses her hold on him. Gulping wails gasp against her fingers.
She presses her shoulders flat against the dusty metal of the hot car as she hears the clumsy flippered steps climbing towards them. The anticipation sets her skin electric. She stifles laughter.
“What’s going on?” He towers above them, silhouetted against the sun. The boy springs from her, embracing his father’s damp swimming shorts.
“Baba,” the boy sobs, “Baba.”
“What’s going on?”
She presses her fingernails into her palms. She can feel the sharp ridges indent the skin. “Hide and seek,” she repeats.
His head catches as if he’s misheard. “What did you do to him? Why is he crying?”
“We were only playing,” she says.
“He’s bleeding.” He scoops the boy up, frowns with concern at the grazed knee. The child buries his head into his father’s shoulder blade and curls against his chest. “It’s okay, Asim,” he soothes, “it’s okay.”
He fears suddenly that his mother was right. She’d warned against marrying so young a girl after his first wife passed. He holds his son tightly and glances at the young woman sitting on the gravel with her shoulders wedged up against the car door. The thrust of her chin is childishly defiant. “Let’s get going,” he says wearily, extending a hand to help her up.
As soon as he turns the ignition the car radio starts up. The frantic pling of stringed instruments engulfs the car. His son is in the back seat, quiet now, briny eyes glazed as he watches the sky though the open window. Next to him his wife sits with knees together, her gaze directed to the dash. In the trunk, the discarded rubber flippers are already bone dry.