Strong, rough hands encircled Mumina’s upper arms and hoisted her over the side of a wooden fishing boat. She smelled urine and body odor and blood and fish. She rubbed salt water out of her eyes and ran one hand over her body, making sure she was covered even though soaked, clinging clothes revealed the shape of her body. Someone coughed behind her and she turned to see who it was but instead of seeing the fisherman who had saved her life, like a living nightmare, she saw the women and children in the sinking boat she had abandoned. They screamed and clung to one another, pulling each other into the water as they struggled to save themselves. She saw the eight-year old girl again, the one who kicked as long as her legs could hold out, hoisting her infant brother over her head. Mumina had paddled away from the pair as quickly as possible but she still heard “Bismillah al-Rahman al-Raxiim” and she still saw a powerful wave sweep over the siblings. They never resurfaced.
The fisherman coughed again and Mumina looked at him for the first time. He had a full beard, dyed with henna. Just like the dead boat captain’s. Mumina vomited over the side of the fishing dinghy. “Nice of you to keep my boat clean,” the fisherman said. Mumina glanced around at fish guts, tangled fishing line and a rotting net and felt her stomach lurch again. She held it in and leaned her head back against the wooden frame. She wouldn’t think about the others. Not now. She did what she needed to do and she was still alive.
The fisherman rolled a water bottle across the bottom of the boat. Mumina picked it up and drained the water.
“You must be hungry too,” he said and gave her half a baguette smeared with soft white cheese, tomatoes and onions. He grinned as he watched her eat and Mumina tugged on her wet clothes to loosen them from her body.
“I haven’t seen any other boats in a while,” he said. “You must have swum a long ways. What happened?" Mumina swallowed a chunk of bread and didn’t answer. “What’s your father’s name?” he asked. Mumina took another bite.
“Who is your mother? Where are you from?” As soon as she spoke, Mumina knew he would recognize her accent as from Hargeisa but she wasn’t planning on revealing any more information than necessary.
“You got any family?” She shook her head. She hated lying, but didn’t have any other choice.
“I’ve been fishing all night. Got a good catch to sell in town. So I was sitting here singing and praying and complaining about my dead wife. Man wasn’t made to live alone.” He raised his eyebrows and paused a moment. “I was heading back to the city when I saw you flailing on that piece of wood. Almost broke my back pulling you in, then you go and throw up on the side of my boat and eat the rest of my breakfast.” He stopped talking and seemed to be waiting for her to say something. Mumina stared at her bread.
“We’re heading back to Djibouti now. You ever been there?” Mumina shook her head.
“Name’s Rashid. That there’s my brother, Ahmed.” Mumina jerked her head up from the bread and craned her neck to look away from the stern. A man lounged on the floor at the other end of the boat. He had one hand on the motor and one between his legs. He spit a long stream of khat juice and lifted the hand from the motor in silent acknowledgment. Mumina cringed and he licked his lips.
“I guess you’ll need a place to stay, if you don’t have any family and never been to Djibouti,” Rashid said. He squat down beside Mumina. She could smell his fishy hands. “I got a nice place. Three rooms. Me, Ahmed, his wife and my son.” He clutched the hem of her shiid in his fist and squeezed the water out of it. Mumina felt his eyes travel up from her ankles to her waist. He took the corner of her shalmad and squeezed water out of it too. She shuddered.
“You cold?” he asked.
“Ahmed, she’s cold.”Ahmed laughed. “Give her my go’."
Rashid leaned over Mumina to reach the go’ on the other side of her. She shrank back against the boat but still felt his chest on her body. Rashid wrapped the go’ around her shoulders, letting his fingers linger until she twisted away.
Mumina urged herself to stay awake, to keep on the alert but the physical exhaustion of her survival swim, the emotional toll of the last few weeks and the rhythmic pounding of the boat over the waves made her drowsy. She felt a sticky hand on her knees and Mumina’s last thoughts before succumbing to sleep were that she had run to avoid one hell and found herself in another.