Saving Refugees, One Boat at a Time
The True Tale of the Optician of Lampedusa
They’d all ended up in the sea afterward. One by one, they’d dived in, whooping like children, splashing each other, chasing the last light of the evening before the sun sank and its fiery colors fizzled out as it hit the waterline. The autumn chill had yet to spoil the water; it was still 21 degrees Celsius. Mucking around with his friends, the Optician could still sense the optimism of summer. What was it Elena had said when she was floating beside him, her long dark hair fanning out around her head? That swimming in the autumn was like a rebirth. If you got a few good swims behind you in October you felt renewed and ready to face the winter ahead.
He’d stayed in for a little while after the others had climbed out and were hosing themselves down on the steps. It was wonderful to be in the darkening velvety warmth of the sea, letting the swell take his body and push and nudge it wherever it pleased, its rhythmic music accompanied by the tinkling laughter of his friends.
It had been so deliciously peaceful and welcoming. He’d almost felt guilty when he’d started swimming. It seemed barbaric somehow to churn up this glassy water with all that kicking and chopping. So he’d stroked through it very gently, barely troubling the surface like a polite and courteous guest tiptoeing through a house at night so as not to disturb his host.
Yes, he was grateful to the sea all right. Its salt was still tight on his skin from yesterday’s swim. It changed your ideas, the sea did. Made you see things more clearly, more positively somehow. All this calm. Although, he thought with a tiny pang of annoyance, it would be even better if those seagulls would tone it down a bit.
His coffee was almost cold now. He drained the cup and wondered whether he should fetch another or enjoy the last few moments of solitude before the others came up on deck. He could already feel someone stirring in the cabin below. He stretched and rolled his head slowly in a circle, listening to his neck crack. He deserved this vacation and he wanted to savor every little golden moment of it.
But something was niggling at him. There was something about the way the seagulls were mewling that had him on edge. It was the pitch of the damned birds. They were never satisfied, always complaining or bickering and picking petty squabbles with each other. His skin prickled with irritation.
Matteo came up on deck, shirtless, his arms and chest crisscrossed with a dark pattern of intertwined tattoos. His finger was in the air. He didn’t pause to wish his friend good morning. He was concentrating on listening to something.
“Do you hear it?” Matteo asked the Optician urgently. “There’s something out there.”
The Optician strained his ears to the sound. “It’s not seagulls?” he asked. “Seagulls screaming?”
Gabriele and Francesco joined them. “Something is screaming,” Gabriele confirmed slowly, “but I don’t think it’s seagulls, do you Francesco?”
Francesco held the cold, metal gunwale of his boat and listened. This sound didn’t make sense.
The men stood silent for a long moment and peered across the water at the cat’s paw prints on the springy surface. As the women hurried from their bunks and rocked the cabin below, a few small waves slapped the boat’s hull and the mewling noise was gone for a few seconds. The sea calmed itself but almost immediately the wind threw back the eerie sound again, a sort of animalistic baying. The Optician shuddered involuntarily.
“What is it?” he whispered. “What’s out there?” His eyes darted nervously around the boat. There were no lights out on the dark water, no other vessels. Aside from the sinister intermittent shrieking they were on their own.
But Francesco had already started the engine.
As the men pulled up the anchor, the women scrambled up onto the deck.
“What’s going on? What’s that awful noise?”
His wife Teresa sounded panicky—she was easily flustered and upset by sudden problems. She was fifty now, but she’d never really shrugged off her childish sense of innocence and wonder. It made her very endearing; practically everyone she had ever met had wanted to protect her. But the Optician often worried that her openness also left her vulnerable. He sometimes told her she needed to toughen up.
“We’re sorting it out,” he promised her as soothingly as he could. “We’re going to take a look. Yell if you see something, girls.”
“But it sounds like something is really suffering,” she insisted. “It sounds like something is in pain.” She held the edge of his windbreaker and looked up at him anxiously.
“We’re sorting it out,” the Optician replied firmly.
Teresa, Maria, and Elena took up posts at the bow. Freed of her anchor, Galata chugged out of the mouth of the protected cove and into the open sea. Waves struck the boat’s hull with greater force and the Optician checked his watch mechanically— it was just after six o’clock. He swung himself up onto the roof of the cabin to get a clearer view of the water. The sea dutifully reflected back the orange sky. Whatever was out there was giving no clues.
Matteo and Gabriele paced the little boat, swearing under their breath impatiently. The women were silent at their posts, breathing heavily, afraid. The Optician’s wife gripped Elena’s arm.
The motorboat’s outboard engine sliced easily through the water, leaving behind a trail of frothing backwash that split into two like a whale’s fin. Yesterday afternoon the Optician had sat at the stern for a good half an hour, transfixed by the hypnotic regularity of the wake, his mind lulled and comforted by the continually splitting vortex. Now he watched the disturbed water nervously as his finger worried at the pulsating vein on his right temple.
“See anything?” Matteo shouted up to him.
He shook his head and the two men exchanged looks of bafflement.
Now he couldn’t hear the damned noise anymore at all. Were they even on the right course? He whistled to Gabriele and when he looked up, he tapped both his ears in an exaggerated mime of deafness. Gabriele yelled down to Francesco to cut the engine and its throaty roar petered out and died. Galata shuddered spasmodically in the water from the brutal braking, lurching and trembling. Her crew, motionless, waited for the sea to settle. Maria leaned over and took Teresa’s other arm. Giulia, standing a little apart from the others, was biting the knuckles of her right hand, her left hand struggling to pull back her rebellious hair. How vulnerable they looked, the four of them. He was alarmed for them but he knew he must not show it. This time, the monstrous, tortured howl ripped through everyone like a bullet. Instinctively, the Optician moved his hand to protect his face.
He staggered to keep his footing on the cabin roof. What the hell was out there?
The howl mutated into an unbearable screeching. The Optician felt his stomach knot. Something was roaring underneath the waves. Whatever it was, the Optician had a gut feeling that when they found it, it would be truly terrible. He forced himself to regulate his breathing and tried to nod reassuringly at Teresa who was looking at him in horror.
Then, suddenly he saw something.
“Fish! I see three big fish there! Francesco—five o’clock!”
Francesco maneuvered the boat in the direction of his outstretched arm. The Optician kept his eye trained on the black dots he saw bobbing on the water and tried to steady his mind. But his brain was arguing with his eyes. What kind of fish would be on the surface of the water, idiot? Come on, what kind of fish?
“More fish there!” Maria was pointing slightly to the right of his outstretched arm, leaning over the rail, her face screwed up to the sun. But the Optician was still staring with a professional intensity at the objects he had spotted, focused as fixedly as a customer in his own shop sitting in front of the reading charts. He willed his eyes and brain to recognize and interpret the forms.
Galata drifted closer, the little boat dancing nervously up and down in the slight swell. They were thirty meters away and the frenetic clamoring was intensifying.
The Optician recoiled. One of the black shapes he was watching lengthened, partly lifting up from the water and then flopping down again into a ball. It disappeared, leaving a white froth of disturbed water.
Oh God no. Please God no.
“People!” Giulia screamed. “There are people in the water!”
Standing high above the water level on the cabin roof, his arm still outstretched, the Optician saw the black dots come into focus. Bodies were flung like bowling pins across the sea’s glassy surface, some bobbing precariously, some horizontal and horribly heavy. The people in the water had all seen Galata now and they were churning the sea into a frenzy with their flailing arms and legs. Every time a wave collapsed, another black dot or head was revealed. The sea was littered with them.
The ocean reverberated with their screaming, the terrible sound bouncing off of and coming from under the water, gargling and rupturing. The Optician recognized the screams as the music of the dying, the final dirges of the drowning. In the chorus of voices he could pick out each individual soloist. Everyone was begging to be noticed.
The Optician swallowed.
How, he thought, do I save them all?
He lowered his outstretched arm slowly. In the water, hands snatched despairingly upward, clutching at air, reaching futilely toward him.
He could see yellowing eyes staring wide and wild at him, frantic with the hope of salvation.
He glanced down at his friends on deck. Eight. There were eight of them and there were hundreds of people in the water. And they had just one life preserver.
Even before he jumped down from the cabin and onto the deck, the Optician had understood that they would have to choose who would live and who would die.
There had been no arguments about who should give orders, not a second wasted in debate over who should perform what function or who should stand where. Matteo, without hesitating, simply dived into the water and started dragging people toward the boat. Gabriele raced into the cockpit and gave the mayday emergency call on the radio.
The Optician was sweating even before Matteo had hauled the first spluttering man to the boat’s stern. He ripped off his windbreaker and he could feel the blood pumping through his chest and limbs, his body gushing adrenaline as he stood on the wooden deck. His muscles itched to be used and his breathing was impatient.
The first person they pulled from the sea looked barely more than a boy. The Optician and Francesco had hauled him up by his wrists but the young chap was completely naked, covered in diesel and as slippery as a fish. He slipped back under. When he resurfaced again spluttering and crying, it was been difficult to find purchase on his oily flesh, which was as smooth and polished as an aubergine. The Optician’s nails bit into the dark skin as he yanked him aboard. He’d never held anyone’s hand so tightly before—the intimacy of the gesture with a naked total stranger made him wince. Yet when the force of the pull had flung the man up against his bare chest, he’d felt something strangely primeval stir in him, something almost like love. He’d wanted to hold the adolescent, to hug him in the same way he had done with his own sons when they were frightened or in trouble.
But there wasn’t time for emotion. Matteo was already yelling for help with the next survivor and was struggling to free himself from him; his head was being intermittently forced underwater as the drowning man clutched at his neck and scrabbled with his feet, trying to hook his legs around Matteo’s tattooed torso. All around the boat, from every direction, voices shrieked in panic.
“You’ll be fine, you’ll be fine!” the Optician shouted to the young man over his shoulder. “We’re going to save your friends now—don’t worry!”
On the deck, the teenager had instantly rolled into a fetal ball, vomiting seawater and shaking so hard the women thought he might be having a seizure. He was weeping and moaning to himself in a language that they didn’t understand.
He screamed when Maria touched his shoulder, pulling backward, covering his private parts with his trembling hands. Sensitive Teresa understood his shame immediately and dashed below the deck to get her weekend bag. The first thing she pulled from the canvas was a vermillion T-shirt and he snatched it from her to hide himself. He put his legs through the armholes and wore the T-shirt like a giant pair of underpants or a diaper, knotting the material at the side. He sobbed like a baby, rocking. There was a question that needed to be asked, although the Optician was not sure he was ready for
the answer. He steeled himself.
“How many of you were on the boat?” he asked, counting on his fingers to indicate numbers. The exhausted teenager leaned forward and with his finger, traced a figure on the deck. Five hundred. The Optician’s mouth fell open. The young man leaned forward again and added a symbol. Plus.
Three men were now on board and Gabriele maneuvered the boat toward the next little group.
Everyone seemed to understand implicitly to focus their rescue efforts on the clusters of survivors rather than on lone individuals; no one protested when they let a corpse smack back down under the quartzy surface. In addition to Gabriele’s distress call, the girls had telephoned the emergency services from Elena’s mobile but there was no sign of backup yet. It was fully light now and the Optician could make out dots over a five-hundred-meter radius.
“Propeller!” he screamed. “We need to go slower! We’re going to slice them up with the bloody propeller!”
Galata zigzagged through the small waves, picking her way through the debris of corpses and the discarded clothing and shoes. It felt so ugly, thought the Optician, not to stop and retrieve the dead, but they didn’t matter now, not while there were others out there who still had life in them, who still had a chance.
The next two men they dragged from the sea were so close to death that the Optician feared they’d die on board. Saltwater and shock had wrecked their intestines and they were retching and defecating all over the deck. Their eyelids fluttered as they drifted in and out of consciousness. Their bodies were exhausted with the struggle and their spirits were only just flickering. Teresa and Maria tucked sleeping bags from the bunks around their shuddering forms, willing them to stay alive.
“Thirty meters away—7 o’clock!” yelled Francesco.
There were four men in the next huddle, all clinging to each other, splayed out in an ungainly formation, splashing the water with their forearms as they tried to stay afloat. In the clear water, the soles of their feet flashed pink as they kicked upward, thrashing like fish in a net. Kneeling with his arm outstretched, the Optician waited for their fists to close on his.
He would never forget the feel of all those slippery wet hands. Power rippled through the sinews of his back as he willed survivors from the water. He had never felt so alive in his whole life—he could feel vitality sparking, flaring, flashing through his nerves and muscles. He needed to make these dots in the water feel it, too. He felt he had the energy to reanimate them all if only he could reach them in time. His friends’ zeal was electrifying and spurred him forward.
“Come on guys, we need to move faster!”
One of the men they’d rescued was hysterical, jabbing his finger at the water, holding on to the Optician. He kept repeating a word over and over again but he didn’t seem to understand any Italian. It was Matteo who thought to try to speak in English.
“What do you want?” he asked. “We can help if you tell us slowly in English.”
The man looked at them all imploringly, tears pouring down his face.
“Please,” he said, holding his hands together as if in prayer. “Children. There are many children.”
Francesco jumped in the water then too, kicking downward, his eyes stinging in the saltwater. He exploded back onto the surface of the water after a minute or so and then raced back to the boat like a man chased by a shark. The Optician did not need an explanation and nor did any of the others—they all knew from the shock on Francesco’s face that under the waves he’d been nudged and bumped by the blunt, clumsy forms of corpses.
The Optician found himself praying silently to a God he didn’t believe in. Just save the children. Please let us find the children. Whatever happens, for God’s sake, let me help the children.
But they never found any children.
“Let’s move on!” said Francesco determinedly and Gabriele thrust the engine forward.
By the time they reached the trio of people that Maria had spotted, there were only two heads left above the water level.
“It’s a woman!” Maria leaned over the side of the boat as Gabriele steered it tentatively toward the group. “There’s a man too, but I’m sure there’s a woman!”
Francesco threw the life preserver to the woman but it was the man who caught it. The Optician watched as the man pulled it toward her but she seemed disinterested and wouldn’t grab it despite his frantic cajoling. Her left hand lay across the bobbing back of the dead man beside her and her long braids were splayed out in the water as her head drooped sideways; it was clear she was giving up and was going the same way as the corpse she was clinging to. The man in the water beside her tried to pry her hands loose and put them on the life preserver, pleading with her to let the dead man go.
The Optician knew it was futile to plead in Italian, but he did it all the same. Teresa and Maria cried out to her to come with them, reassuring her that it would soon all be over. At the sound of the female voices, the young woman opened her eyes, raised her chin slightly, and looked up at them.
With the last drop of her strength, she lifted her arm and flopped it onto the ring. She was wearing a turquoise T-shirt slicked with oil, and nothing else.
It was almost as if she hadn’t wanted to be saved, the Optician thought. She slithered onto the deck in a pool of diesel and seawater like a fish with the struggle gone out of it. When he put his hand to her cheek, she cowered, her hands pulling down at the hem of her T-shirt, trying to hide her nudity and her humiliation. He wanted desperately to reassure her but her fear of him, and of Francesco and Matteo, was tangible; he could feel that they were hurting her just by looking at her. Yet when Teresa laid a beach towel over her body, she sat up instantly and touched Teresa’s hand.
“Thank you,” she whispered in English in a cracked voice and wrapped the towel around her waist. As they tried to comfort this tiny woman, Teresa and Maria wept openly. The young woman remained impassive. She sat with her chin slightly upward, looking almost haughty as she choked back her grief. Was she too proud to weep or just too broken? In their own sparse English and with much sign language they showered her with questions: did she want water, did she want to take off the wet turquoise T-shirt and put on the dry sweatshirt they offered, was the dead man she clung to her husband, were there any other women on board?
She turned her head to the sea where the corpse was still visible, floating crudely, face downward in the swell. She stared at the form for a long moment before turning her back.
“He was my brother,” she said quietly and without self-pity. “And yes, there were many women.”
She did not speak again and although they all checked on her frequently, none of them once saw her cry. Nor did they find any other women.
After they’d exhausted the first search area, Gabriele took control of the boat, while the Optician and Francesco yanked and dragged the people on board. The women had been incredible, taking it in turns to scour the sea, to nurse, and to comfort. Their teamwork was a factory conveyor belt, saving, sorting, securing. Afterward, the Optician thought it was as if they had been purposefully selected for this task—as if all their lives, they’d been subconsciously practicing for this day.
From The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby, courtesy OR Books. Copyright 2o16, Emma Jane Kirby.