My son is dead. My fingers knotted in the fabric of his trousers, pulling him close, he leaned against me and he died. The last of his breath blew over my lips and along my cheek. It passed my ear with a sigh.
He stands against me still. There is no choice, no room in here to lie him down on the floor. So I must hold him to me. We all must hold him. Our bodies are so close, so tight, that there is not the room for him to fall. If I let go, he will not fall. He can not fall. But still, I can not
let him go.
Every bump in the road jolts us. I hear some of the others cry out in pain with each violent shift. My legs are now numb but for many hours they hurt with the pain of a thousand hot needles.
I imagine I too will die in here. When they finally stop and open the doors I will be standing here with my dead son held to me, but I will be dead also. Unable to lie down, unable to fall, upright and rigid and dead.
Breathing was difficult in here from the moment they shut the doors, but that was from the smell of our bodies, our sweat and fear, and from the tightness with which we were packed.
I could feel other chests pressing into mine on all sides. Each time those around me breathed in, they crushed me, forcing my breath from me. Even my son stole lungs-full of my air in order to fill his own. In time all our breathing grew more shallow and the pressure of other chests expanding grew less. We learned to time our breathing to take it in turns. We talked about it, quietly. Even joked about it. One man said it was like those people at a football match, each standing in turn, forming a human wave. Ours was a wave of breath moving from one end of the truck to the other. All of us snatching at life each in his turn.
Now the breathing is difficult because the air is thin and foul. The doors are sealed and have been for many hours. Hours? Days? I can no longer tell how long it has been. Too long is for certain. There seems to be no break in the seal, no hole in this container for air to leave or to enter. We breathe nothing now except what we brought in with us. There is the leavings of our lungs, our exhalations, but also the smell of bodies, of urine and excrement. And death.
I have already faded out once or twice. I could not have told you this for myself, but voices close to hand have brought me back, encouraging me to keep going. I don't understand how I have been able to continue when my son has not, but maybe he was just too young. Too small. Too weak. He, like me, came and went for a time. Each time he left his muscles would slacken and he would lean into me. Each time he came back he cried out with the pain of muscles suddenly tensed. Finally, he went and never returned. His muscles loosened more than ever before and I smelled the stink of his evacuation, and his final breath caressed my cheek in farewell. I had not the strength to cry.
And yet we chose this journey. We paid for our death in money and promises. They wanted more from us in return than we had to offer. If we had had more to give why would we have wanted to leave? But in the new world they are delivering us to we were told we would be able to work for them, give them what they want and still have more than enough left over for us. I never believed them, but hoped that an escape would be possible. In the countries through which we pass there are laws to stop us from being kept as slaves. We could have made a life and lived as we have always wanted to.
Now I realise just how foolish my hopes were. If I should reach a destination it will be mine alone and with my son's death to carry. And the more I think the more I come to the conclusion that men who would lock us in such a place will have equally tight seals surrounding us at the other end of our journey. Escape will be an impossibility and laws cannot protect you if the lawmen know nothing of your existence. Perhaps my son is the lucky one. He has already made his escape.
And still I would not make the decision differently if I had my time again. The death that I can feel stealing upon me was
at least achieved in the hope of something better, something free. To have stayed and starved like my wife, my daughters and other sons, would have been less than useless, it would have been despicable. To have waited so long before trying already weighs on me. To never have tried at all would have been a death all its own, a living inhumation followed by a true death of far less nobility.
My hands and arms grow tired. I find I can no longer hold my son to me. My arms slump useless at my sides, unwilling to be raised even so short a distance, the fingers hanging limp. My son still stays upright, his knees and hips bent against me and his neighbours, his head rolled backwards and his open eyes staring up at the roof of the truck, glittering in the dim light with the artifice of life. I would like to have been able to reach up and close his eyelids when his head slumped back and they opened wide, but I cannot raise my arms through the press of the bodies around me. No-one can. No-one has been able to touch their own faces, their own lips. Some, I know, have brought small amounts of food or water with them, but none have been able to get these vital things into their bodies. For them it is yet another torment. At least I carry nothing but my clothes. I have no temptation of sustenance to torture myself with. All I can do is wait. Wait for the darkness to once more steal over me and never withdraw. The final wash of a deep, deep tide.
Instead, the truck stops and, after brief agonising moments, the door opens. Daylight bursts in like an explosion and everyone closes their eyes. At the same time sweet fresh air gusts in and each man stands taller and breathes their fill. Again, I can feel chests pressing into mine as they fill, but there are enough in here no longer breathing that it has no effect and I too can give my lungs free rein. I breathe deeply again and again and then it catches. I expect a cough but release a sob. My muscles reawaken with the physical jerk it causes and pain spikes my legs and back. I cry out in pain and my inward breath again turns to a sob. All around me are voices crying out in a pain and horror, finally given enough breath to express themselves.
I hear voices at the doorway, and the sound of sirens beyond them. The crush of bodies slackens and I feel my son start to leave me. With difficulty and another cry I raise my arms and pull him against me. I hold him and at last cry out his death.
Wherever we have come to I can finally announce to the world that my son is dead. I can finally cry his soul to heaven.
And I can finally release my shame that as his final breath caressed my face I breathed it in, snatching at the thin trickle of air, stealing my son's final breath to keep myself alive.
The police of whatever country this is finally take the weight of his body from me and lead me from the container into a warehouse filled with flashing lights and noise. Yet, though they take his body from me, I shall always carry my son with me in my mind, on my tongue, in my actions and in every breath I draw. Wherever I have now arrived, and wherever I go to from here, my role now is to live so that with every breath I draw I can give life to him in return
for that final breath.
Calum Kerr © 2008