She sits by the smouldering tarp, kicking a rock with her dusty boot. Cinder and coals smolder perpetually. The sun is stingingly bright. You can taste the heat.
She used to go down to the sea, to cool off, to bathe, to feel weightless. She’d go at night with her cousin, Zadi. When the sea and the sky were dark emptiness, and the stars reflected back from the water. They used to float on our backs, pretending to be in space, in the stars. They thought there would always be more nights, always believed there would be more nights. They haven’t been allowed to visit the sea for years now.
There are kids born here who have only heard stories of water. Although water stretches as far as the eye can see. Dry, blackened desert and the endless blue, as bright as a headache. They build dolls out of scalding scraps of plastic and at night, their parents bandage their ragged hands and feet with old shirts. Burnt metal frames of houses too hot to touch, with families squatting in the scanty shade, cats sprawled asleep on the sand and babies crying to the sound of waves they cannot imagine.
Scorched palms, tender feet. Wincing smiles. How long has it been? Seven, eight years? The seasons blend into one another in a cloud of orange dust.
Within a few months, the camp burned down not once, but three times. The first and second times, the authorities rebuilt, worse, but something.
The third fire was different, something really wrong. She remembers the air cloying and thick, choking her throat and stinging her eyes. No matter what the fire brigade tried, they couldn’t get the smoke to stop. It embedded itself into the land, permeating every molecule it touched. It soaked into skin, into homes and clothes and hair. For forty eight hours they tried, hosing down every tent, every tree.
The useless fire brigade melted into gruff and armored police officers.The lockdown was still in place, they announced. The asylum service was closed indefinitely, and we, trapped on this island, were not permitted to leave. For two days there was no food, no matter how much the crowd pleaded, argued, and shouted. People gestured at burned toes, red shoulders and smoky tears. The police did not budge. Tears sizzled on the bright sand underfoot.
The fence had always existed, with gaps and holes to shimmy through. The police hardly enforced its limits, although perpetually scowling. After the third fire, the fire that never fully ended, the fence was fortified, no one in or out.
After two days of hunger and thirst, food distribution resumed, now to an agitated mass. They never have enough water for everyone. Each day she stands in line for hours at one of the water taps, after waiting in another line for a portion of rotting food.
A week after the beginning of the eternal fire, they set up a container distributing meager amounts of thin clothes, cheap sandals, and golden blankets. How carefully Zadi used to arrange their sandals on the beach before swirling through unending nights. She hasn’t had sandals since, just these sweltering boots for when walking barefoot is unbearable.
They announced, via crackly loudspeakers resonating across the camp, that they would still receive an allowance from the asylum office, ninety hoova per month, per person. As if that could get you anywhere.
They announced that the allowance could be used at the supply container, queues began after midnight. No more trips into town. Medical emergencies would be dealt with by a stern-faced arHer doctor stationed in a billowing white tent at what had once been the main entrance. They were given no materials to rebuild. It would have been no use. What they built would have blazed away overnight. They sleep on the sand, sweating but safe. They are forced to brave the coals daily, open blisters hardening into toughened, dead calluses. All of their asylum interviews have come and passed, all of their documents have expired. People wonder if anyone knows they are still here. The seasons blend into one another in a cloud of orange dust.
When there is a death, their papers are entrusted to a senior member of their community. There will be proof—they were here. This was their name, this was their smile, these were the names of their parents, and they were here. Their bones will have petrified under the sun, crushed into the dust. But no one is forgotten, they insist upon this with a futile determination of the damned.
No one could say how long the lockdown would last, nor how long the asylum service would be suspended. It was always two more weeks. Then two months, six months, two years. And now? The seasons blend into one another in a cloud of orange dust.
Her knees are scarred, her back tender. Her dull hair has begun to break off. Her tongue, always swollen. Her cheeks are cracked and when she listens to the wind, she hears nothing. Her head is spinning, all the time. Her dusty boots barely cling to her ankles, and when they are worn out, She will not get another pair. When she closes her eyes, she is back to that last night with Zadi, that swim. The chill courses through her blood and soothes the blisters, bathes her entire body. She thinks that she can no longer smell the putrid soot and blood and sweat. Only sometimes, as the breeze shifts, does a nauseating whiff remind her where she really is.
This interminable heat chains her to the ground, the weight of the air bearing her down. Creaking branches. Her bones strain under the pressure. She is envious of Zadi, who never saw this fire, not it’s beginning, nor it’s stinging persistence.
People would do anything for a sip of water. Her? She doesn’t dream of water.
She dreams of floating in the star-studded sea. She dreams of a darkness that does not choke, of a freeing stillness. Of eternally, cold currents bearing her up into space.