The refugee camp was a battered rainbow of humanity.
Each tent a failing flailing nation’s flag weighed down
by stones. The wind would lift sand grains and dust wisps
off the central tent and blow them down the sandy paths
to edges of the island, the beach, where the refugees
would gather to look across the deep blue waters,
through clouds drifting like slow white whales.
On clear days, they’d see their dream destination, Italy,
freedom, and their dream killers: coastguards, sharks
in water, fast metal boats ruling the seas and watchtowers
on Italian cliffs, watching the hopeful refugees, warnings
clear: to stay put, there, stay and never leave.
On dark days, those among them who had braved
treacherous waves at night, who carved makeshift boats
from trees to ride the moon-tide’s watery cliffs,
the waves would wash back their bodies, their eyes gone
to hungry fish. The men would bury, the women hum,
both forge sweltering songs of sorrow, hardship, pain, loss.
At sundown, the adults would trudge back
for the tasks of keeping home: farms to tend,
tents to sweep. Teenagers would split in couples,
search for huddled copes of trees, to shelter and see
to teenage needs, but the kids would roam free.
This kid, they called Rust. Her hair was a bush of clumps,
her gaze stiff as stumps and among kids of the island
the strong ones, the beautiful, musically gifted, the sprinters,
cry-babies, she was the brave one. Everything an adventure,
she’d dig through landfills that lined the island seeking
gifts of clumped goods, fist-sized bits of clockwork
metal she’d scurry back to her father’s workshop
— a scorched tent where he made repairs or tinkered
with his engineering head. The camp dwellers always
brought work, and as Malik fixed their phones or radios,
candles flickering like small gods, they’d talk of their lives
back home, who they once were, what they gave up.
Rust would watch wide-eyed as he worked, suck up
all she could of his skill, nose-dive into landfills looking
to build her works. Unless a worthy distraction appeared,
nothing stopped her search. Today, this was it:
A small cart. Four wheels. Clear path. Down hill.
Back wind. An audience. The thrill.
North of the Island. Salma, Rust’s mother, leaves
the communal kitchen carrying food for her family:
Malik, his brother, her roughneck daughter. In the tent,
she rises before the spread, spots the clock: dinner time
and bellows her child’s name
— Ikenna! Ikenna! Ike…
Rust rushes through the tent’s entrance, dishevelled,
bits of dry bush cascading off her like rotting confetti.
Her Mother bellows louder
— Have you been climbing landfill again?
You are covered in rust! Sand in your hair?
You wounded? Cut! Child, is that blood?!
— Mamma don’t worry, I’ve suffered worse
— The women laugh at the child I’ve got
who will never get…
— Married? Mamma, I work better alone,
I don’t need to get married!
Rust hurries off as Salma carries on. Malik enters
— Is my brother here?
They hug, a brief tight clinch in which an essay
worth of words pass
— Gone since breakfast, you saw him last
— Maybe he’ll come after dinner. Is Ikenna here?
Rust says, rushing, her hair a bush half tamed.
Night squats over the camp. Storytellers gather.
Musicians strum. Thirst is quenched. Bellies swell
till silence and sleep claim them again.
Morning. The sun, frozen in the sky. Winged insects
dapple by, a hurried voice at the tent’s mouth
— Malik, It’s your brother, come quick.
They found him washed up on the shore, whatever craft
the waves had bore, how far he’d gotten, what he saw,
knowledge he could share of the world beyond, locked
in his body, his eyes gone. Malik crumples to the shore
and when the burial is done, songs sung, the camp as one
turns in land, but Rust stands, kicks the sand,
her eyes a stump of darkness.
She heads south, picking her way through shallow
rock pools, starfish, mussels, crabs, stops before
a camouflaged cave, checks she isn’t followed and ducks
into her hideaway. The walls are papered every which way
with charcoal sketches of pulleys and leavers, clockwork,
etches of feathered motors. Rust lights a candle, hoists it
high above her head, pours light over a full sized model
she hopes will cross the sea. Rust kneels before
her scrapheap wings, thinking of his life, says
— Uncle, it will fly. Tomorrow, you’ll see.
Dawn. Rust, who worked through the night slips back
to her tent, a somber assortment of compassionate,
merciful mourners who camouflaged her absence.
Salma stops her only child
— You hungry? You eaten?
Ikenna, did you sleep?
Rust shrugs and struggles out
her grip, ruffles among her things for nuts, spare screws
and bolts back to her cave. At noon she steps out,
the wings strapped to her back, and walks the busy path
through the refugee camp, crowds trailing, questions
about the mouths
— What is she doing? What do you think?
Do you think that thing will fly?
We’ve to leave this island, otherwise we’ll die.
But isn’t that dangerous?
— I must try. Tell my parents I’m going to the highest
rocky cliff. Updrafts should help the lift-off
and the wind should glide me clean past
the rocks and by the time they reach the beach,
I should be halfway crossed to Italy, the dream.
At first, the Italian coast guards ignore the large bird,
but for the metallic glint that sheens among its feathers
they lean into their telescopes
— Captain, it’s a girl! She must have left the island
— Don’t be absurd
He spits out his stiff drink and radios the snipers
— Is that a girl flying? Confirm what I see?
Back on the island, the refugees thrill as Rust swoops
through the sky, mastering the wind. Malik calls
— Ikenna! Fly! Straight to Italy!
The kids chant
— Rust! Ikenna! Rust! Ikenna
breeze takes their chants and calls
like prayers to her wings and on she flies to Italy,
to freedom in their dreams.
When the first bolt pops, Rust doesn’t scream.
When the harness belt snaps, she steadies in the wind.
When a wing tears off, doubt slashes at that dream.
And the second wing pulls her down beneath the sea.
Silence takes the refugees, they stand, solemn, stone-still.
Malik, staring where she fell, Salma not daring to breathe,
the folks deepening in sorrow that the sea had claimed
their kin, had added to the souls oceans already keep.
The refugees search for the right mournful hymn
but as their mouths form words, Salma’s hushes them.
— My daughter accomplished an incredible thing,
she flew and reached for a future she could barely see.
Brave, unstoppable, unmatched in zeal, when you sing
her story, keep her bright, keep her real. /
Inua Ellams is a multi-award-winning writer, poet and playwright. He’s the author of four poetry books, most recently #Afterhours. His latest play The Barbershop Chronicles enjoyed a sell-out run at the National Theatre, and he’s the recipient of a Liberty Human Rights Award for his show ‘Evening with an Immigrant’