May 23rd 2013
Friday, April 2nd, 2004
Osman leaned over the rail and spat into the grey sea before turning again to shout orders at his first mate Yusuf. The GPS had died two weeks out to sea and in the fog we would be lucky not to crash into the side of Manhattan at full speed. With no harbor lights to follow and nothing at all on the radio he could only rely on dead reckoning and intuition. He shot me an anxious look. “Naga amus, Dekalb,” he said, shut up, though I hadn’t said a word.
He ran from one side of the deck to the other, pushing girls out of his way. I could barely see him through the mist when he reached the starboard rail, ropy coils of vapor wrapping around his feet, splattering the wood and glass of the foredeck with tiny beads of dew. The girls chattered and shrieked like they always did but in the claustrophobic fog they sounded like carrion birds squabbling over some prize giblets.
Yusuf shouted something from the wheelhouse, something Osman clearly didn’t want to hear. “Hooyaa da was!” the captain screamed back. Then, in English, “quarter steam! Bring her down to quarter steam!” He must have sensed something out in the murk.
For whatever reason I turned then to look ahead and to port. The only thing over that way was a trio of the girls. In their uniforms they looked like a girl band gone horribly wrong. Grey headscarves, navy school blazers, plaid skirts, combat boots. AK-47s slung over their shoulders. Sixteen years old and armed to the teeth, the Glorious Girl Army of the Free Women’s Republic of Somaliland. One of the girls raised her arm, pointed at something. She looked back at me as if for validation but I couldn’t see anything out there. Then I did and I nodded agreeably. A hand rising from high above the sea. A bloated, enormous green hand holding a giant torch, the gold at the top dull in the fog.
“This is New York, yes, Mr. Dekalb? That is the famous Statue of Liberty.” Ayaan didn’t look me in the eye but she wasn’t looking at the statue, either. She had the most English of any of the girls so she’d acted as my interpreter on the voyage but we weren’t exactly what you’d call close. Ayaan wasn’t close with anybody, unless you counted her weapon. She was supposed to be a crack shot with that AK and a ruthless killer. She still couldn’t help but remind me of my daughter Sarah and the maniacs I’d left her with back in Mogadishu. At least Sarah would only have to worry about human dangers. I had a personal guarantee from Mama Halima, the warlord in charge of the FWRS, that she would be protected from the supernatural. Ayaan ignored my stare. “They showed us the picture of the statue in the madrassa. They made us spit on the picture.”
I ignored her as best I could and watched as the statue materialized out of the fog. Lady Liberty looked alright, about like how I’d left her five years before, the last time I’d come to New York. Long before the Epidemic began. I guess I’d been expecting to see something, some sign of damage or decay but she had already gone green with verdigris long before I was born. In the distance through the mist I could make out the pediment, the star-shaped base of the statue. It seemed impossibly real, hallucinatorily perfect and unblemished. In Africa I’d seen so much horror I think I’d forgotten what the West could be like with its sheen of normalcy and health.
“Fiir!” one of the girls at the rail shouted. Ayaan and I pushed forward and stared into the mist. We could make out most of Liberty Island now and the shadow of Ellis Island beyond. The girls were pointing with agitation at the walkway that ringed Liberty, at the people there. American clothes, American hair exposed to the elements. Tourists, perhaps. Perhaps not.
“Osman,” I shouted, “Osman, we’re getting too close,” but the captain just yelled for me to shut up again. On the island I saw hundreds of them, hundreds of people. They waved at us, their arms moving stiffly like something from a silent movie. They pushed toward the railing, to get closer to us. As the trawler rolled closer I could see them crawling over one another in their desperation to touch us, to swarm onboard.
I thought maybe, just maybe they were alright, maybe they’d run to Liberty Island for refuge and been safe there and were just waiting for us, waiting for rescue but then I smelled them and I knew. I knew they weren’t alright at all. Give me your tired, your poor, your wretched refuse, my brain repeated over and over, a mantra. My brain wouldn’t stop. Give me your huddled masses. Huddled masses yearning to breathe. “Osman! Turn away!”
One of them toppled over the side of the railing, maybe pushed by the straining crowd behind. A woman in a bright red windbreaker, her hair a matted lump on one side of her head. She tried desperately to dog-paddle toward the trawler but she was hindered by the fact that she kept reaching up, reaching up one bluish hand to try to grab at us. She wanted us so badly. Wanted to reach us, to touch us.
Give me your tired, your so very, very tired. I couldn’t take this, didn’t know what I had thought I could accomplish coming here. I couldn’t look at another one. Another dead person clawing for my face.
One of the girls opened up with her rifle, a controlled burst, three shots. Chut chut chut chopping up the grey water. Chut chut chut and the bullets tore through the red windbreaker, tore open the woman’s neck. Chut chut chut and her head popped open like an overripe melon and she sank, slipping beneath the water without so much as a splash or a bubble and still, pressed up against the railing on Liberty Island, a hundred more reached for us. Reached with pleading skeletal hands to clutch at us, to take what was theirs.
Your huddled masses. Give me your dead, I thought. The ship heeled hard over to one side as Osman finally brought her around, nosed around the edge of Liberty Island and kept us from running up on the rocks. Give me your wretched dead, yearning to devour, your shambling masses. Give me. That was what they were thinking, wasn’t it? The living dead over there on the island. If there was any spark left in their brains, any thought possible to decayed neurons it was this: give me. Give me. Give me your life, your warmth, your flesh. Give me.